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What To Know Before You Submit Your Writing: 28 Great Tips From Literary Agents for Writers

Here are 28 great tips from literary agents for writers on what to know before you submit your writing to agents and editors.

(This is Part 1 of a three-part series of advice from literary agents for writers. Part 2 is a roundup of query letter submission tips, and Part 3 is a list of literary agent pet peeves.)

The New Year is here, and that means new goals, new resolutions, and new writing projects to send to literary agents and publishers.

But before you send work out, understand what you should and shouldn't be doing in your forthcoming submissions. To help you, I've cobbled together some amazing advice straight from literary agents in the publishing trenches—reading through years of hashtags and agent info on Twitter so you don't have to.

Below find 28 great tips on what you should know and understand before you send your work out. I've also chimed in to expound on their helpful advice.

Good luck submitting!


How to Catch an Agent's Interest with Your First Few Pages

Writing strong first pages requires a great hook, a strong voice, and a clear premise. The first sentence should immediately catch the reader’s attention, while the subsequent text should leave the reader wanting to dive further into the pages of the manuscript. But making the first pages of your story absolutely un-putdownable takes practice, patience, revision, and an eye for detail. Which is why we’re here: to discuss what to do (and not to do) to make your opening pages stand-out.

Click to continue.


What to Know Before You Submit Writing to Agents

An impatient writer is a rejected writer. No one is looking for OK writing or pretty good writing. Agents seek excellence, and excellence takes time. Don't query before your manuscript is as good as you can make it. Listen to Michelle here: Wait a few weeks (or months) if need be, and tighten the work through revision.

Many, many agents are on Twitter. And by reading their tweets, you can get a deeper understanding of what they seek as well as what kind of writing excites them. Use an agent's online footprint and research them. Read their blog interviews. Review their website. 

(20 literary agents actively seeking writers and their writing.)

This helps you better target agents to query, and it also helps you learn more about each rep, giving you information you can use to begin your query letter. For example, "Dear Ms. Flynn, I saw your tweet about how you seek irreverently humorous young adult books such as Spanking Shakespeare. For this reason, I think you would like my YA comedy of errors, [Title]."

This is a nice reminder that you have two great weapons in hooking an agent—your manuscript and your query. You may say, "It's impossible for me to write a good query, so I won't try. The agent will happily just skip past my terrible query to my brilliant sample pages and be enthralled. SLAM DUNK." Some agents may do just that, but many agents still give a lot of weight to the query. So don't underestimate the value of an awesome letter. Get it edited if need be. Send out different versions if you wish.

This is still true in 2017, of course. A friendly reminder that if you are querying fiction of any kind, the manuscript must be 100 percent complete before you send it. But as we've already discussed, it should be not only complete but also revised and rewritten as much as needed before submitting. Please note that most agents treat memoir submissions like novel submissions in that they want to see the full, edited memoir upfront. (There are a few agents out there who want a book proposal for a memoir rather than the completed work, but this is rare.)

Laura is talking about young adult and middle-grade projects here, but her point applies to all novels. So many fiction submissions do not start in the most intriguing (i.e., best) place. This goes back to how you must receive critical and blunt feedback on your work before you submit. Nail your opening! There is immense pressure on your first pages to be great.

Before you submit, you should understand basic word count expectations. Someone recently contacted me asking me to critique their 33,000-word novel. But that is not a novel. By definition, that word count is a novella, and much too short to be a novel—meaning that agents will not consider the work.

More info: Word Count: How Long Should a Book Be?

Understand your genre before you submit. If you're confused, do research and ask questions. Saying it's "women's fiction/sci-fi" does not make sense. Probably the most common confusion is whether a book is middle-grade (for readers 8–12) or young adult (readers 12–16). Saying it's both, or worse yet saying it's "middle-grade/young adult/adult" will only come off as amateurish. Yes, material can cross over from one age category to another, but fundamentally, it is starts as just one category. More info: The Key Differences Between Middle-Grade and Young Adult.

Good advice. Along with this, I'm always advising query writers never to say, "This is my first novel." That's because many first novels are learning experiences—almost like the one you have to get out of the way while you gain your voice and learn how to write well. Agents may think this, too.

And by the way, the word she uses here—"betad"—is beta'd, meaning that your work has been reviewed and critiqued by beta readers (writing group peers).

Before you submit, you need an independent analysis of your work—i.e., you need other people to critique it. This means either having talented writing peers/friends review it (look for people who are smart, critical, and honest) or hiring a freelance developmental editor. You should have your manuscript revised, overhauled, and battle-tested before submitting it for publication. Or else you're essentially sending out a work in progress that will not reach the finish line.

(How freelance editors fit into today's publishing landscape.)

This echoes Marlene's tweet above. Just understand that many successful debut writers are not going it alone. They're part of a writing group and writing community. Find yours—even if it's online, even if it takes a while. Locate your tribe.

The second tweet (lower) is good advice many people will not take the time to apply. Try talking about your story to strangers and only giving yourself several sentences to describe the main plot, characters, and conflict. You'll be forced not only to boil down the story, but to attempt to focus on the most interesting and unique elements to maintain their attention. Once you know what captures the attention of strangers, you can work on highlighting that information when you query agents later.

Again: Before you submit, you should understand basic word count expectations. Worth repeating. Even if you're going to ignore these expectations, you should learn the guidelines so you understand how/why/when to ignore them.

Testify! I love this tweet. It's unwise and risky to self-publish your book just to see how it does, and then plan on submitting it to agents later if sales do not materialize. Once you self-publish a book, you'll have to disclose that decision to an agent, and then an agent will be wondering why the book did not sell. Your query letter will sound like this: "I wrote a book and self-published it. It went nowhere. Would YOU like to rep it???"

Before you contact agents, understand the difference between a pitch (the part of the query letter that reads like back cover copy) and the synopsis (a front-to-back summary of your book).

More info: 4 steps for writing one-page and long-form synopses.

No matter what you are writing, you will need a query letter. Not all queries or the same or are trying to achieve the same thing. A novel query tries to suck you in with the pitch and voice. A nonfiction book query puts massive emphasis on the platform and bio. A picture book query is short and sweet, almost more like a cover letter. 

(How to write successful queries for any genre of writing.)

But in all cases, you will indeed need a query letter. Do not try to skip this step and instead just send an agent a hyperlink to something, or attach your manuscript.

Cutting and pasting text into the body of an email can lead to weird formatting issues, and symbols that appear out of nowhere. Test-send a few initial query letters to friends/yourself to see if everything looks OK.

If you are going to mention things about yourself when you query—such as previous publications, or the success of your social media accounts, or that you were interviewed by ABC News—be prepared for agents to verify these items. So 1) do not exaggerate or make things up, and 2) make sure there is a means online for agents to verify you're being truthful. If you were interviewed by ABC News, for example, having a video of that interview embedded on your website is an easy and worthwhile step.

Personally, I absolutely hate it when I search for an author and turn up diddly squat. Alec's right—have an online presence, even if that is just a simple website with one single page that has your name, head shot, and email address. Do this even before you are published or in the querying stages. You have no idea if you're missing opportunities simply because you can't be contacted.

This is some of the best and simplest submission advice you will find out there. If you want to know how you, an unpublished author with no name recognition, can entice agents (and readers) with your book pitch as well as your first pages, look at those like you who succeeded and learn from them. In the words of agent Sara Megibow of KT Literary: Go to the bookstore and pick up debuts in your genre from the past two years. Then examine what they did successfully concerning their pitch (found on the back cover or inside jacket flap cover) as well as their first pages.

I included this tweet because this is a simple, valuable reminder that getting on Twitter to follow agents is a good thing. Twitter is the place where agents explain what they like and don't like on a micro-level. Again, we're coming back to the value of research, because it helps you target markets (agents) before you submit. Agents say stuff like Jessica did here all the time. They'll say "Please don't send me a book if there a rape in the story" or "I like science fiction, but I have no idea where all these science fiction/Western hybrid stories are coming from. Not for me." These little bits of information will help you add and cross off potential reps from your to-query list.

Do not get someone to send out your queries for you, be that a relative or a paid service. Ten times out of ten when this happens, an agent will be confused as to why you did this. Sending a query letter over email is effortless. If you can't send your own queries, it makes an agent wonder what else you can't do or are unwilling to do. (Note: If you are disabled, ignore this whole point.) You can hire people to a lot of things for you—be a writing coach, edit your query and synopsis, edit your manuscript, design your website, consult on your social media accounts, and even research agents, I suppose. But queries should be sent by you and you alone.

First of all, understand that when people use the word "exclusive," they can mean 1) contacting only one agent at a time while submitting, or they can mean 2) when an agent asks to review your full manuscript but be the only one reviewing the full thing for a limited length of time. Stacey is talking about the former—the idea of only querying one agent a time. I agree with her; this is a bad idea. Even if you have "dream agents" out there, I would still not be submitting a query exclusively. Think about it. The agent could wait one month, review your query, like the query, request your first 50 pages, sit on those for two months, read them, then reject you. You waited three months and ended up with just another form rejection. That is not advisable.

If you're having trouble defining what your book is (genre-wise) and who would represent such a story, scour a bookstore as well as Amazon to find any titles anywhere that could be comparable to yours. Then use Sara's suggestions here to help identify the agents. You could find some more reps to add to your query list. Another way to find out who repped a book is to visit the author's website, then see if they mention who their agent is on their Contact page.

As you research agents and build your list of reps to target, you should be giving some consideration to all agents who might consider your work—both established agents and new ones. Both have advantages, and it's typically new/newer agents who are actively seeking clients right now.

A recurring theme of this article is research, research, research. But Tina's point here is that established agents have been giving blog interviews for years. Realize that if they tweeted about seeking dystopian fiction 4 years ago, that may not still be current. Check updated guidelines on their website.

(10 best dystopian novels for writers.)

Previously, agent Veronica Park mentioned how you should not say that your completed manuscript is brand new because that would imply that it has not been revised or edited. But at the same time, take Renee's advice here and do not say your manuscript had been around for years. That would make an agent say, "But if it was completed and copyrighted in 2014, does this mean he has been submitting it for two years straight with no luck?" That thought does not inspire confidence. (I know it's kind of a tightrope, but just do it.)

A collaboration agreement with a ghostwriter or cowriter or illustrating partner should be worked out in writing early on, before you seek an agent. It's not the agent's job to work this out for you. It's an agent's job to take your amazing completed project and sell it. More info: 6 Question Writers Ask About Copyright and the Law.

First of all, "prescriptive nonfiction" basically means nonfiction books that are not memoir or narrative nonfiction. And if you are writing such a book, you must have a platform when you submit your work or else most/all publishers will not even consider your idea. This is because with nonfiction, most of the marketing falls upon your shoulders, and you will be expected to build a platform before you need it—before the book comes out. A platform consists of all the elements you have in place to market yourself and your books right now—such as your blog, website, newsletter, public speaking appearances, media contacts, social media numbers, and more.

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