Three months at a literary agency made me a better editor

Getting noticed in a literary agent’s slush pile can be tough.

By Whitney Matusiak

In the changing landscape of the publishing industry, one thing has remained the same: literary agents will advocate for your work—they’re the Jerry Maguires of the author world. That is, if you’re lucky enough to get one.

Since January 2015, I’ve been interning with Anne McDermid & Associates, a Toronto-based literary agency representing amazing talents such as Andrew Pyper (The Damned), Sabrina Ramnanan (Nothing Like Love), Sarah Lazarovic (A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy), and Governor General’s Literary Award–winner Michael Harris (The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection).

For those who have already been published in print, the road may be a little less bumpy for book two, but for everyone else, getting published is about sending their works to the big slush pile. After NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and the Christmas break, manuscripts of all genres from all over the world poured into our submission account.

There’s no magic formula for getting noticed, and there’s no substitution for an amazing and unique concept, but here are a few tips to help you or your client’s work stand out.

The pitch: This is your email intro to whet the agent’s appetite.

I’m so often asked, “How many submissions do you get each week, and how many do you pick?” It’s not a numbers game. With no guaranteed outcome, it’s up to the way a great idea is pitched. Sometimes I pick 10, sometimes I pick one, and sometimes I don’t have time to check the submission inbox in a given week. There’s no magic to sending in your query, and I can assure you there’s no advantage to submitting on a Monday versus a Thursday, 4 am or 4 pm.

What makes a quality pitch? Hard to believe that this has to be said, but proper spelling helps. However, perhaps most importantly, follow the agent’s submission guidelines. Do not send what you think agents need. Send what they’ve asked for. I promise that the guidelines are online, and if they’re not, that is a legitimate reason to give them a call. But do not query on the phone; just ask about the guidelines and then email.

For example, Anne McDermid & Associates asks that pitches include a brief description of the author and project, along with the first five pages and no more, unless invited to do so. Because other agents and publishers have different requirements, a mass “To whom it may concern” email of your own concoction may miss some key components. Avoid, avoid, avoid. Your author description should include previous publications (whatever those may be), awards and accolades, and blurbs (not professional references) from other industry professionals. If your second cousin is Margaret Atwood, arrange an emergency family reunion. But if you don’t have this experience or these connections, don’t worry: you’re not out of the game. Just don’t make up content in place of it—it’s not helpful to know this is the one book your dog hasn’t chewed to pieces.

When describing your project, be sure to include the word count. As a tip, the target for first-time publications is between 60,000 and 90,000 words. So unless you’re George R.R. Martin, cut. Then cut some more. Reasonable comparisons, especially to works represented by your agent of interest, go a long way. But steer clear from saying things like, “It’s Star Wars meets The Catcher in the Rye.” If your manuscript is about teen angst in space, just say that.

The submission: Congratulations! Your full manuscript has been requested.

The biggest mistake made by first-time authors is a slow start to the story. Perhaps your exciting incident is too far along in the manuscript or maybe it was upfront and just not as compelling as you’d imagined. Even in the serene genre of literary fiction, this is not something you want to gloss over or hint at. What can really bury and kill an engaging plot is a seemingly endless prologue or too much background.

If you have written a prologue that you believe is absolutely necessary to the story, consider sending the first five pages of chapter one in your pitch instead. The writing from these pages is far more representative of your ability. What agents want to know more than anything is how well you start the manuscript and hook the reader. Prologues can cheat this assessment.

When I reviewed my first manuscript for Anne McDermid, my inner editor took over, and I looked so much at the mechanics of the manuscript that I forgot to check in and ask how the writing was making me feel. This is a qualitative skill that all editors should work on—that keen awareness that you can equate with sniffing out liars at potlucks. Recognize your inner feeling of doubt. This may come across in corny dialogue, anachronisms, or false or forced settings. Readers are exceptionally perceptive, and while most like a good cognitive challenge or new perspective, believability is still paramount.

The response: Whether accepted or rejected, your book isn’t done.

Say this to yourself, and say it out loud: “Whatever the response, good or bad, something can be learned from it.” Although this might seem idealistic, it’s true. If you’ve submitted a full manuscript, you will ultimately get a response (but, remember, the process takes time). However, rarely is the response, “Yes, I love it! Change nothing.” Be open to improvements of all types and levels of effort. Agents may recommend changes themselves, based on their previous experience, or you may be directed to do a major rewrite or change the ending with the help of a developmental or substantive editor. Openness and flexibility with your agent are worth cultivating early; be clear about what you’re willing to fight for. Set reasonable boundaries, but respect that you’re not the only client, and yours is not the first book they’ve helped to get published.

And, of course, flat-out rejection with varying degrees of feedback is a possible outcome. Silence at the pitch level is also understood to be a rejection. But, even with that blow, there’s a lot you can learn. If your pitch was rejected, cool off, look at it again, and adjust it. There’s nothing stopping you from resubmitting or sending it elsewhere. That’s an advantage of scaling back on simultaneous mass pitch emails: you can learn from the first round, and tweak them for the second or third.

Your work may have been rejected for any number of reasons. Some are easier to take than others:

  • The writing was too something: boring, flowery, violent, bitter, moral, cliché, profane, etc.

Avoiding this can be complicated. It can have a lot to do with what’s being published at the time, the trends, the agent’s preferences and ability to be an authentic advocate, or not having submitted to the right agency. Remember: some agencies specialize in the material they publish.

  • Your genre manuscript might be too late: we’re vampired out.

I’ve read a number of manuscripts and pitches that are great…in theory. The problem is that the submission is just too late, and the trend is changing. Keep a finger on the pulse of reader demand. Stay fresh and in touch with your audience by following blogs, connecting with your community, reading new material, and tracking social media posts and the news.

  • You’ve assassinated your main character.

Your character was weak, the character development was weak, or the character was weakened by too many supporting characters—all instances qualify as legitimate reasons to reject a manuscript. The success of your story rests on the shoulders of the characters who carry it from one scene to the next. And if you haven’t found a way to make them interesting and compelling, there’s no number of beautifully described sunsets that will compensate.

  • The book suffers from crazy-maze syndrome.

If your reader gives up somewhere between the fifth shift in point of view and the killing of 10 characters in 10 pages, don’t be surprised. Pace your storytelling, and work with an editor to determine what the crucial plot points are. Weave the story around them. Plot twists and effective pace changes will make for a convincing and compelling storyline, but it’s a delicate balance. Remember that just because you can add a quirky hiccup to the plot, doesn’t mean you should.

  • You are stalking your agent.

It’s hard to imagine a concept so brilliant that it would trump the every-hour-on-the-hour phone call follow-ups and handwritten notes you’ve been sending your agent. Patience. Be clear about your reason for calling or following up, and avoid the midnight Twitter rants.

  • Your agent is out of coffee.

Yup. Sometimes agents have bad days. Other projects aren’t going well, work is piling up, and the greatest manuscript just slipped through the cracks. It happens. Or sometimes manuscripts have been passed on, only to be published elsewhere and even win awards. This happens too.

Part of being an editor is facilitating that relationship between the author and the audience, but there are a number of connections that get made in between. Having worked with Anne McDermid & Associates, I now have a much clearer and bigger picture of how best to reach that first target reader: the agent (or intern).

Whitney Matusiak is a freelance writer and editor at Curlicue Copy, providing copywriting and substantive and copy editing services for corporate, academic, trade, and lifestyle publications.

This article was copy edited by Nadiya Osmani.

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