Powering up your submission for agents

By Carolyn Ward

Many of us are submitting our work to agents in the hope of getting representation to move forward with the dream of getting something published. It’s the first big step on the ladder for those looking for traditional publication, as your agent will champion your work and send it out to editors at publishing houses. 

But remember – agents see hundreds of submissions a week, so your project needs to stand out; and for the right reasons. 

Follow all submission instructions

Firstly, follow all submission instructions precisely. Don’t waste your time or theirs. Don’t fall down that dangerous rabbit hole – well, even if they don’t represent teen fiction, they might love mine so much they’ll make an exception. Guess what? They won’t. Think they’ll want to see 10k words of your novel when they only ask for 5k? Nope. 

Agents often discuss how many subs they get that don’t contain the correct materials, or that are addressed to the wrong email, or their name is written incorrectly. The underlying message here is that you can’t follow instructions, or that you aren’t careful. It’s tough, but competition from the in-box is fierce.

Do your research

The answer is to research. Check and double-check! If you are tech-minded, make up a spreadsheet with a top twenty list of which agents to target. Just like in other industries they retire, new people take over, and they can move agency. Make sure your information is up to date. If you aren’t techy, it’s an excuse to buy a new notebook and build your own agent reference book. Keep track of exactly what you send out and how long it takes to get a response. Spoiler – it can take a long time. Six months or longer!  Check on the agency website to see if and when a nudge is appropriate. Always be polite and remember the industry is small and people talk. Don’t scupper your chances by being rude or inappropriate. Agents are humans too, and they want to work with people who are serious about writing and behave in a professional manner. 

Polish your synopsis

Secondly, ensure your synopsis slaps – can you polish it up more? Does it explain the outline of your story in a balanced way? If you aren’t sure, get a beta reader to check it and see if they can follow your outline. Read it out loud, or use a reader app. Change the font size and style, or colour, and read it again. Is it working? If not – try writing it all over again. Are there stronger or more succinct ways to express the story?

If you are stuck – there are many websites that give hints and tips to help. Have a search and then try again. The reason an agent wants to see it is so they can check the story follows an exciting path, and has a great ending. They want to check the idea is fresh and original. They want to start questioning if they can market your book, and if the premise makes them excited to read more. They will be thinking about what the editors they know have been asking for… and wondering if your project fits.  

Create your query letter

Thirdly – your query letter. Ensure everything is spelled correctly! You can try and personalise it for each agent by researching them a little on Twitter or Instagram. Maybe mention you love one of their authors, or some of the books they worked on. Could one of these works be one of your comp titles? 

Letters are better kept short and sweet, but what you can do is develop that final paragraph, the one with information about you. 

To strengthen this, it is a good idea to try and build up some writing experience, and not necessarily in the same age group or genre. Different experience shows flexibility and also proves that you are determined, observant, able to follow instructions, write to a brief and delight other audiences. 

Writing advice

It is a good idea to try and build up some writing experience, and not necessarily in the same age group or genre. Different experience shows flexibility and also proves that you are determined, observant, able to follow instructions, write to a brief and delight other audiences.

Build writing experience

There are many ways to build up your writing experience, or ‘writing CV’. 

Enter competitions. You can learn the art of flash fiction, or poetry, or short stories. There are many sites such as Paragraph Planet, Creative Ink, Paperbound Magazine, Retreat West, Northern Gravy, and of course, WriteMentor run competitions too. Getting into a literary magazine, an anthology, onto a website, a long list or a short list – or if you are really lucky: a win – are amazing things to add to your query letter and to advertise on your social media bios. 

Write shorter pieces

Interestingly, sharing shorter pieces can really help with sharing anxiety. Getting used to having your work out there for strangers to read helps when it comes to sharing your novels. You build up a confidence, as you start to believe that you CAN.

The internet allows us total freedom to enter writing competitions all over the world – open your mind and go global. If you are serious and have the time, try and build up to always having ten stories out on submission. There are always plenty of free entry competitions for those who don’t want to spend. If you find a good competition, share it on socials too. On Twitter you can hashtag in #AmWriting and #WritingCommunity to build up followers. 

The creative blast you get from writing shorts between your novel work can feel amazing. Writing in another genre helps explore little scenes and ideas you might have, and you might build a following of slightly different readers and writers, or even win a cash prize. 

Document writing successes

Keep a word document of your writing successes so you have a positive list of wins to look at when writing gets hard. If you get into anthologies, newspapers or lit magazines, try and buy copies and keep them in a box file too. Dealing with rejection from shorter pieces also helps to build writing resilience. Writing as a job is always about rejection. Use them to power you forward, because every ‘no’ is a step closer to a ‘yes’.

So – this week if you are querying agents take the time to review your submission documents. Are they as good as they can possibly be? Could you tweak some parts, or re-write others?

And – have a go at a competition. Try something totally new and put your writing out there. 

Good luck! 

Learn more from Carolyn via Spark mentoring

Author Carolyn Ward is a mentor on our Spark programme, offering 121 mentoring, editorial support, and publishing insights for Chapter Book, Middle Grade, Teen and Young Adult writers.

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