Sunday, April 03, 2005

Pros offer tips on landing a literary agent

This is a follow up to Shawn's post. A must read article on landing a literary agent. We all know it's possible because Shawn landed one. Only after a book is polished is the time to submit. We should look at Shawn as an example. When she submitted "All My Tomorrows" before it was really in tip top shape, it took her six months or longer to find an agent, who turned out to be too green. We all know Shawn's been revising that book, and in the mean time, submitted "My Highland Love," which took her far less time in order to snare an agent and an excellent one at that. This is how we learn. Take the experience and run with it.

By Cathie Beck, Special To The News February 6, 2004

So here it is, already February, and even though you finally wrapped up that labor of love and hate - your book - you're stuck fast in the thinking stages of sending it to literary agents.
Though you swore you'd do it just as soon as that ball dropped on Times Square New Year's Eve, the truth is: You're just one of god-knows-how-many thousands of writers yet to crack the book-publishing code. And besides, without an "in," no powerful agent would ever talk to you, let alone read your book - right?

Wrong, says "Seven-Figure Molly."

That's Molly Friedrich of the New York Aaron Priest Literary Agency, an agent who represents Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes) and Jane Smiley (Moo), among other prominent authors.
"It's such a myth that access to agents is difficult," she says. "It's just not true. I'm easy to get to. If anyone writes a thoughtful, intelligent query letter, I'd probably phone her. Any agent would. Here's another thing: Anybody good will get published."

So how does an unknown get the attention of the desired agent? How can you land that exacting, successful representative who falls madly in love with your work, exhaustively pitches it and strikes the dream deal for your novel, your how-to book, your memoir?
It's not as tough as you might think.

We polled more than two-dozen agents, and they agree with Friedrich: With some diligent homework and the perfect query letter, you're bound to catch someone's eye eventually.
Today, for procrastinators everywhere, a few insider tips from the pros:

• Know your agent before writing a query letter.

"Authors should be doing their homework," says Sandra Dijkstra, who has been hailed by the Los Angeles Times as "the most powerful literary agent on the West Coast."

"Before they write the letter to us, they should check the acknowledgment pages of similar works to theirs. Look in the books you love and compare them to your book - who is the agent being acknowledged?"

Choose an agent who has represented similar works in the past.
Richard Pine, of Arthur Pine Associates Inc. in New York, takes Dijkstra's recommendations up a notch.

Pine represents some of the highest-profile authors today, including spiritual guru Wayne W. Dyer and The South Beach Diet author Arthur Agatston. He suggests that authors get to know personal, as well as professional, details about any agent they're considering.

"There are a lot of agents out there," he says. "So it's the author's job to figure out who these people are. Do research. . . .

"Agents have special interests based upon where they grew up," he adds, "where they went to school, what they do in their free time, who they know, where they travel, and the most obvious, what kinds of books they represent. Then, if you have a sci-fi novel, you won't work really hard on getting an agent who doesn't represent science-fiction," says Pine.

" . . . You have to approach agents in a way that's interesting to the agent."

• Be succinct

Big-time agents receive hundreds of queries a week. Don't waste their time.
It's all about delivering a one-page, three-paragraph, magical piece of paper. Agents note that the first paragraph should compellingly distill your book; the second, explain how your book is distinctive; and the third, wrap everything up in a way that convinces the agent that no one but you can write this book.

Ted Weinstein, former music critic for National Public Radio's All Things Considered and owner of Ted Weinstein Literary Management in San Francisco, notes: "There's a scene in a movie where the guy says, 'You had me at hello.' I've represented an author simply because her one-page query caught me just like that line from the movie."

Quit while you're ahead. Keep it short.

• Don't sound cocky.

Being confident is one thing. Believing you're of literary-classic caliber is quite another.
"I once got a letter that said, 'I think James Joyce writes a lot like me,' " recalls Suzanne Gluck, co-head of the William Morris Literary Agency's worldwide literary department.
Gluck chuckles even now at the recollection.

"Believe me," she says, "that sort of claim creates an office giggle for the rest of the day. . . .

"It's difficult to take seriously the writer who makes inappropriate comparisons of their work to contemporary and classic literature - who over-reach."

• Prove you're not a novice.

"I can tell in the first 100 words whether a writer can write," says Pine. "So your query cannot sound impersonal, amateurish or ill-prepared. I can't tell you the number of times people have written to me and said something like, 'I've written a fictional novel.' I know that person is not for me. Write a smart personal letter."

• Show respect - for an agent's time and intelligence.

"I don't like people to show up my office and just want to meet me. You have to wait your turn," says literary agent Elyse Cheney, who works with Sanford J. Greenburger Associates in New York. "I also don't like queries that have gimmicks going on."

Cheney recalls one writer who sent an umbrella with the query, because the book's opening scene took place in the rain. "That doesn't work," Cheney says.

In addition, "A lot of people start a query with questions that are supposed to be provocative. It's coy and uninteresting and trumped-up when a writer starts a query with questions like, 'Have you ever . . . ?' or 'What do you think it would feel like . . . ?' What the writer is doing is pumping up (their query) with the hopes that it will make what they're saying more interesting, but they don't need to do that. Just tell me what (the book) is (about)."

• Don't make technical mistakes.

Agents possess myriad idiosyncratic preferences - and expect you to follow them.
Research agents' Web sites and learn the details of contacting them - whether to use surface or e-mail, etc. Such particulars are often outlined under "submissions" on their sites.

Admonishes Cheney: "I really don't like e-mail queries at all. I want to receive them by (snail) mail, but everyone sends e-mails anyway. Check the agency's Web site," she says.

• Read.

"What really annoys me," says Cheney, "is that everyone wants to write a book, but they don't read.

"I remember a story someone once told me: 'A doctor sits down next to a man. When the doctor learns the man is a writer, the doc says, "Hey, I always wanted to write a book. I think I will." The writer says back, "Yeah, I always wanted to perform brain surgery. I think I'll try it." '

"That sort of illustrates the point: It's impossible to write books if you're not a devoted reader of good books."

• Nurture any possible connections.

"It's helpful to have been recommended to us," admits Dijkstra, though she stresses that a good query letter can be just as powerful.

Adds Weinstein, "I tell authors to attend a lot of writers conferences. It's like speed dating with agents - you get to pitch the agents and see if they want to see your proposal."

• Don't lose hope.

There's plenty of room for the writer who takes the query letter seriously, says Dijkstra. So there's no time like the present to start taking your New Year's resolution seriously.

"We read everything that comes in," says the agent - a comment that should encourage even the most reticent of writers. "And we read it with great care.

Cathie Beck is a Denver short story writer and journalist. She is currently shopping her own manuscript, "Cheap Cabernet," to agents.

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