One of the biggest things I’ve noticed whilst working for a literary agent is that a lot of writers unknowingly do themselves a huge disservice. I know from my own writing experience that we can spend so much time and effort pouring our hearts into our writing and crafting our stories into manuscripts only to ruin this hard work with a poorly prepared submission letter (or email).
Hopefully, I can pass on some of my experience working for an agent (reading hundreds of submissions and sending hundreds of the dreaded rejection emails), as well as having recently attended the Emerging Writers Festival’s fantastic ‘The Pitch’ session, to help you create a strong query letter. While I can’t promise this letter will get your manuscript picked up and published, these tips will help get your submission read with the attention it deserves, and be more likely to receive professional feedback or hopefully a request for partials.
- Let your manuscript breathe
First and foremost, finish your manuscript before sending it to any agents or publishers! I know it can be really tempting when you’ve nabbed yourself a great idea and just want to tell everyone about it, but please resist the urge to start querying when you are still working on your story. It’s really counter-productive in a query anyway, because all the agent or publisher is likely to say is “no, I only read completed manuscripts”, “email me when you’ve finished your draft” or will refuse to look at it until it’s finished anyway (especially as a finished piece can change dramatically from your initial plan and draft).I’d recommend firstly giving your manuscript breathing space (I know, I know – it’s super hard as you’ve just finished writing and you’re really excited). A little space can give you a much better perspective on your work. Take some time away from it – use it to do some research (see Step 3), and then come back to it with new eyes and a fresh outlook.
- Edit, edit, edit! Not only should your manuscript be finished, but you want it to be at the most polished and professional state you can achieve. Don’t give agents or publishers an easy excuse to not read your work with writing full of sloppy spelling mistakes and ghastly grammar!What can be very handy is having someone else read it (though I know writerly types can get a little possessive – it’s ok). If you do get a friend or family member to look over it, have them read for clarity only (if they are reading it critically you may end up with a barrage of opinions and a manuscript which no direction). You could also visit your local writers centre – think about joining a writer’s group where you can get share your work with likeminded individuals or get access to industry professionals and mentor programs. Victorian Writers Centre offers a discounted manuscript assessment service for its members, which is a great way to get a professional to give you detailed feedback on your work. Also being able to say that your work has been workshopped/re-drafted can be incredibly useful for your submission letter.
- Do your research!
I can’t stress this enough! It is this step, in my opinion, that definitely sets a good submission apart from the mass of generic query emails. Ask yourself these questions to get started:-What kind of manuscript have you written?-Which authors write work similar to yours?-Who represents and publishes some of your favourite authors?Use this information to start working out which agent or publisher will be best suited to the work you have produced. Start Google-ing! Once you have an idea of potential places to submit to, ask these questions:-Are they looking for submissions? If not, consider whether or not you will wait until they are, or if you will submit to other agents/publishers in the meantime.-What are they looking for? What are they not looking for? Most agents and publishers have established lists (work they already represent and produce) – does your work fit within this list? This kind of information will save you a lot of potential rejections and embarrassment – because an agent who only represents non-fiction authors will probably not be interested in your sci-fi manuscript.
-Read the submission guidelines! Again, if an agent says they do not want children’s’ fiction, don’t send them your picture book submissions – you will just get a curt ‘no thank you’ response.
-Ask around – do you know someone with an agent? Has someone given you a recommendation? Use it!
Maybe this sounds very elementary, but you’d be surprised what a difference it makes (and trust me, agents can tell the difference between someone who has done their research or sought connections, as opposed to someone who has just Googled “agents” and copy-pasted a submission to everyone on the results list). This step gives your work the best possible opportunity to be seen by the best, most relevant people and your hard work will pay off with a polished, professional query email.
Part Two will discuss how to start writing your query email and getting the technical side right.
-Steph of My Girl Friday currently works as an assistant to a Melbourne literary agent