So, I have made a start on submitting to agents. While it’s far too early to comment on the results of that (because there are no results!) I can write about the process in practice, and the things I have learnt so far. Because, to my surprise, it has been the proverbial steep learning curve. And I am happy to share my three big findings, for anybody else who might be looking for some advice.
Firstly, it is very time consuming, even with the ease and speed of submitting on-line. Selecting names from the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is only the first step in the process. It is then essential to read the website of each individual agency. Submissions criteria are diverse – my suspicion is that they each thrown in a tiny variation just to make sure you have read their instructions carefully. Then there is the task of selecting a name to submit to, which means reading through all the biographies and preferences of the company’s agents. You then need to find that all-important reason why you want to work with a particular agency – at least, something you can put in your letter! If you can’t find this from a close-reading of the website, then maybe this is the sign that a particular agency is not as promising as it seemed in the Yearbook. After reading through a few websites, I started to get a feel for which agencies were more suitable for me, and which ones I’ll pass over for the time being. Putting all this together takes time, and it can’t be rushed.
The second thing I have learnt is that I was not as prepared as I thought was. I had proof-read my chapters and synopsis and letter so many times, but I was still discovering mistakes after I had made my first few submissions. There are ways of doing things that I wasn’t doing – simple things when you know them, but easy to miss when you first start. The more websites I have read, the more I have polished my submissions. Unfortunately, I see now that those first submissions probably don’t stand a chance, just because of those small imperfections. So if I had a piece of advice here, it would be to not start with your favourite agencies. Get some practice in on some of the less promising agencies first.
So far, so much common sense, and I am sure no-one is surprised by it. It is the advice that is freely available on-line and in the books, and my only addition to it is to be prepared for it being harder to achieve than first imagined. But if my first two findings were to be expected, my third discovery is maybe not so obvious, and it is this; you submit one novel, but you need four different adaptations of it for each submission. Four different versions of the same thing, like matryoshka dolls, copies of each other but varying in sizes. It was only after a few attempts did I fully understand why this was necessary.
The big mamma matryoshka doll is the full manuscript. That stays at home, for now. The biggest doll that gets sent in a submission is the first three chapters – or ten/thrity pages/10,000 words, depending on the instructions. Obviously, this is crucial, as this is actually your writing. This has to be good, or nothing is going to help it. However, the smaller dolls inside are there to persuade someone to read it.
The next doll down is the Synopsis – usually a page long, giving a full account of the plot chapter by chapter. Most agencies ask for this and they are very precise about what they are looking for. It is the equivalent of Cliff Notes for your novel, telling the reader exactly what happens. This is not the place for cliff-hangers or teasers. That sounds easy, but it is actually quite hard to condense into one page.
The doll that comes next is the brief description for the cover letter. This is more like a blurb on the back of a book; it has to reveal enough to generate interest within the confines of a single paragraph. While it doesn’t say as much about the plot, it can be used to explain themes and styles, as well as suggesting genre and similarities with other authors. Despite the brevity of this description, this is the place for selling the novel and why you think it should be published.
And finally, we come to the smallest doll of all, the baby, but don’t dismiss its importance. In the trade, it is known as ‘The Elevator Pitch’ – the idea being that if you had a sales pitch and you happened to get into an elevator with someone it was worth pitching to, you would need one killer line to get their attention before they called security and had you removed from the building. I really struggled with this at first; how could I possibly reduce my novel to a single line and still make it sound unique and exciting? Surely the brief description did that? But after rewriting my cover letter several times, I realised that starting the letter with the Elevator Pitch was the best opening for a letter from one stranger to another. It’s like writing an essay – it needs a beginning, a middle and an end, and the Elevator Pitch is the beginning. And so it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t give any detail, or that it repeats what you are going to say in the middle, because it is just the hook. So rather than thinking of it as a ‘pitch’ but as an introduction, I used it to get straight to the point, using modern terms that I never actually use in the novel or any of the other descriptions because they are anachronistic but are striking and relevant to a modern reader. And then I had my Elevator Pitch.
Only time will tell if any of this will actually work for me. I hope that someone out there will unpack my dolls and like what they see. But one thing has encouraged me as I have been doing all this. On every agency’s website, there are lists of the authors they represent. I was surprised by how few of them I had heard of. I do follow the book trade, through reviews in the paper and on-line booksellers’ promotions, but this only gives a snapshot of the writers out there, the famous or most promoted authors. Below the surface, there is a wealth of authors, getting on with writing their books and seeing them into print, who never get the fanfares or celebrity status. And I would be happy with that. I don’t need to be famous – I just want to call myself an author.