Friday, January 20, 2012

An Agent's Perspective

Meet Nancy Knight, a published author and one of seven women who, in 1999, joined together to form the small press, Belle Books. Looking for a new challenge, Nancy is now representing authors as an agent with the Sullivan Maxx Literary Agency. Welcome to Book Blather, Nancy.

When I speak at writers’ conferences, eager writers generally ask the same two questions. What’s hot or what’s selling right now? How can I get an agent to take me as a client? Interestingly enough, the answer to both questions, well, the simplistic answer, is the same: Write a great book. Of course, nothing is ever that simple. Right?

So here’s an answer that’s a bit more specific. First of all, write your book. That’s right. You have to have something down on paper. You have to have a product an agent can sell and editors can buy. The majority of writers I speak with haven’t finished books yet. They’re in the process of writing a book. Or, they’re getting ready to write a book. Okay. Just stop right there. Write the damned book. Talking to an editor or agent (if you’ve never sold a book) without ever having finished writing your book is pretty much a waste of time—yours and the editor/agent’s. The best piece of advice I ever received as a writer was to sit down and write the damned book.

Write the book of your heart? Oh, boy. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that. Okay. Maybe that works if the book of your heart is something that will sell. But, the smart (and successful) writer studies the market and tailors the book of his/her heart to boost the chances of selling. What good does it do to write a book that nobody wants, except your mother of course. Publishing is becoming, unfortunately, more and more like Hollywood. Editors say they’re looking for something new and different. Some are and there’s a rare book or two each year that fill those slots. Most editors and agents really mean they’re looking for some new twist or some fresh approach to something they know will sell. In today’s economy, taking a risk on a new author and seeing that risk turn into a flop is chancy at best. No editor wants to spend a lot of money for a book and watch it languish on the shelves. Jobs are on the line every day and editors who lose money for a publisher don’t last long. So, study the market. Find that new twist or fresh approach. Tailor that book of your heart. (Or save it until you become a NYT bestselling author and then approach your publisher with it.)

The next step is to revise it. What I mean here is to take off the kid gloves and scour that manuscript like it was a burnt pot roast pan. Get rid of all the excess verbiage and beautiful prose that has nothing to do with your story. Look at the storyline. Have you tied up loose ends? Have you fulfilled the promise you made in the beginning? (This means, have you given the reader the story you promised them in the beginning or have you morphed your story into something else entirely?) Is every character necessary and pulling his/her own weight? Is the story cohesive or does it fall apart on re-reading? Revision isn’t just about tweaking a word here or there. It’s about editing out the redundancies and filling in the gaps. It’s about perfecting the plot and the characterizations. It’s about building the most believable world for your story to take place in. So, grab the steel wool and start scouring.

Grammar. OMG. What can I say? I’m constantly amazed at the number of submissions I get with laughable grammar skills. I’m not talking about a misspelled word here or there. I’m not talking about a dangling participle or a misplaced modifier occasionally. I get manuscripts with such poor grammar that I literally laugh out loud sometimes. If you aren’t sure of your grammar skills, get somebody to read your manuscript who can point out the problems. Or, do what a friend of mine did: enroll in a local community college and take a grammar class.

Learn proper formatting. If you don’t know how to format a book for submission to an editor or agent, look it up online. Your  name should appear at the top of every page along with the title of the book and a page number, preferably in consecutive order from page one to the end. Nothing fancy. Double space your ms. Always. Indent your paragraphs and don’t right justify the margins. For those of you who know these things, I apologize for boring you, but somebody needs to say this to the vast sea of unpublished authors who haven’t a clue.

Submit to an agent who actually represents the type of book you’ve written. Don’t waste your time or an agent’s by sending non-fiction to an agent who only represents fiction. Read the Writers’ Digest Guide to Literary Agents. Really read it. See what an agent is looking for instead of blindly submitting your ms.

Finally, you should understand that agents and editors are actively looking for the next great book. When we receive your ms. we’re eager to see if yours is the one we’re looking for. I sincerely hope it is. By the way, I’m looking for fantasy, urban fantasy, romance (and all its sub-genres), mysteries, suspense, thrillers, and young adult novels in all the aforementioned genres. Thanks for reading my rant. And, thanks to Marilee for providing me with the opportunity to be a guest blogger on her site. Good luck!

Nancy Knight
Sullivan Maxx Literary Agency

1 comment:

  1. Great advice. Ms. Knight seems like a kick-in-the pants!