Getting a literary agent: What NOT to do





Getting a literary agent: What not to do

A few things I’ve learned along the way…


When I finished the final line of my debut novel, I felt a surge of exhilaration. This was great — all I needed to do now was get an agent, which would surely be easy given that I’d written the definitive English-teacher-takes-cocaine-in-Hong Kong-and-gets-arrested novel? I bought the Writers and Artists yearbook and eagerly opened it, only to be dismayed to discover that every agent wanted a synopsis.

I Googled: “How to write a synopsis.”

Writing a synopsis is not fun. It reminded me of my first ever shift in a hotel, when I was fourteen. After ten hours of clearing tables, polishing plates and dragging chairs around with a lazy, chain-smoking Italian man, I was shattered and desperate to go home.

“Andy,” said my manager as I was untying my gravy-stained apron, “someone’s called in sick. Will you do another four hours?”

With the book finished, I was keen to get my submissions out as soon as possible. I rushed through my synopsis in one evening, using Google’s first response as my yardstick. This was daft. A good synopsis is vital; as much, if not more so, than the first few chapters of your book. An agent’s decision to take you on will invariably come down to the strength of your synopsis. Mine was imbalanced, used too many adverbs and neglected to mention a key turning point in the novel.

Don’t do this.

Take time and care on your synopsis. It’s a slog but an important one. Get people to read through it and give feedback. Would they want to read the full book? If the answer is no, your synopsis needs work. In this lightning-paced world in which we live, there is often temptation to look for quick fixes and shortcuts. This is not the case with writing, at least if you hold hope of being in any way successful. Rushing anything to do with your writing is a bad shout. When you don’t have a publisher, you have no deadlines. Use this to your advantage, take your time.

With my sloppy synopsis sorted, I compiled a list of every agent who may be even remotely interested in my novel, ambitiously including those that go for erotica (there is one very short and awkward sex scene in my book.) Casting the net far and wide is all well and good but it’s pointless pitching to people who don’t represent your genre. All you are going to do is waste time and piss them off. The only agents I immediately ruled out were ones that required a hard copy of my work. The reason: I didn’t have a printer.

After I’d crafted my shortlist / very long list of potential agents, I put together a generic cover letter, again based on a guide that I’d found on the internet. The letter was fine — formal and tidy enough — but my attempts to show a personal touch were embarrassingly transparent. Every letter was the same aside from one short paragraph:

“INSERT AGENT’S NAME HERE are a fantastic, well-respected and exciting agency and I would love the opportunity to work with you.”

I didn’t clarify why I held such high opinions of them, mention any clients that they currently work with or, in fact, show any sign that I gave a shit about them. This was another bad move. Spend some time on the agent’s website, look through their clients and identify anyone you like. Namedrop if you can be subtle about it — just do something to show that you’ve put some effort in and that you care. Five well-written and personal submissions are better than scattergunning fifty careless, generic ones.

Thinking I was Ernest Hemingway, I poured myself a stiff whisky, switched on my laptop and began submitting my stuff; copy and paste email, change agent name, attach synopsis and chapters, send. Easy. I became excited, these were the first steps to future stardom! Such was my celebratory mood, I opened a bottle of red wine.

This is a genuine email I sent to a reputable agent

The following morning, I arose with furry teeth, a fuzzy head and a feeling of dread. All in all, quite an impressive combo following a night in on my own. I went into the living room to find two empty bottles of wine strewn on the floor and turned on the computer. I’d emailed twenty-five agents — nearly half my list. Rereading them, the first few weren’t too bad but as the night had gone on, they had spiralled into a car crash. I found emails with names spelled wrong, unattached synopsis’ and INSERT AGENT’S NAME HERE still in situ. With the post 2am emails, I’d gone maverick with my cover letters, slipping in jokes and quirky comments to try and show off my vibrant personality. These jokes and quirky comments were largely unfunny.

I was annoyed about my idiocy but still held hope that someone would bite. It was unlikely to be the lady who I’d addressed as Peter, having forgotten to change the name, but you never know. All I needed was one.

Waiting for responses from agents is like waiting for a text from a girl that you like. A girl who both likes playing mind games and regularly forgets to charge her phone.

They take forever.

Surprisingly enough, over the following weeks and months, I didn’t have a single positive reply. Not even a “We like it but….” All I got were one or two lines saying my work wasn’t suitable. I can have few complaints about this, I’d been my own worst enemy.

As rejection after rejection trickled through, I read through my book from the beginning and saw things I hadn’t noticed before. There were typos and plot holes, superfluous characters and untied loose ends. With an incomplete book, how could I possibly expect to get anywhere? Decent cover letter and synopsis or otherwise. I got my head down, worked hard, rewrote large chunks of the novel and months later finally felt satisfied that it was ready to start submitting again.

This time, I went through the second half of my list with a fine toothcomb, looking for people who would be genuinely interested in my work. After further research, I found a British publisher based in Hong Kong who accepted unsolicited submissions from authors. I read through their client list and discovered that they had several authors whose work was comparable to my own and they were looking for Asia-based fiction. Perfect.

Learning from the errors of my ways, I took time to write a detailed and personal cover letter, printed off my much-better synopsis and opening chapters at work and posted it out. Eight weeks later, they got back to me, telling me they liked my stuff and were keen to read the whole book. I duly sent it to them and it was accepted. Hurrah.

My second book is nearing completion and now I’m back in the UK, I’d love to get an agent based over here. The pitching process is about to start again. I may have to change my email address as there is a reasonable chance I’ve been blacklisted by several agencies, but I’m excited about the challenge ahead.

I’m not going to open a bottle of red wine this time.

Thanks for reading!

My debut novel Bright Lights and White Nights is out now published by Proverse.

My new book will (hopefully) be out in the not too distant future!


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