Ask the Agent: Wooing Agents, Focus, and More
Navigating the rough terrain of today’s publishing industry shouldn’t be a solo event. This week in Ask the Agent, I’ll explore and dissect two of the industry’s mysteries, straight from the shoulder.
Question from Robert
One of the challenges I have is writing a proposal letter to an agent. The proposal letter is a challenge because I have no experience in publishing and I come off like a regular Joe Schmo off the street who wants to be published. Any suggestions on what I can do to become more visible to an agent and hopefully, eventually, pave the way to publication.
By “proposal letter” I’m going to assume you are referring to a query letter. A “proposal” is actually quite different from a query, but from what you’ve asked, I feel safe in assuming you mean query. My apologies if I am mistaken.
Many agents, especially newer agents, but also more established agents as well, take on first time writers. This is nothing new. A fresh, new writer can be a blessing to an agent. They have no previous poor sales for their agent to overcome while pitching their new book to publishers. If you are an author with poor sales, it makes editors a bit wary of buying your new manuscript.
So keep in mind, new does not equal undesired.
One thing I’d like to suggest is to use a bit of Socratic Knowledge while writing your query letter. Socrates said, “I only know that I know nothing.” He believed that mistakes and bad things happened because people thought they knew more than they did. Apply this to your writing career. Don’t try to pump up a writing past that doesn’t exist. Recognize that you have no background in writing, be honest about it, and agents will respect that. Inexperience (Socratic ignorance), and a self awareness of your ignorance in writing makes you a clean slate for editors and publishers to work with.
You need to gain enough self-awareness to realize that yes, you are a regular Joe Schmo, BUT you write… and it’s possible that you write really well. And you are taking the necessary steps to get published. You have determination and passion. So you are a super star Joe Schmo. No shame in that.
Pro tip: I hate getting a query letter that lists a bunch of minor, minor, minor writing achievements. It’s a waste of query space and does absolutely nothing for the writer.
Question from Michael
I've been ostensibly typing away for several years, learning everything I can about the vulnerabilities and strengths of each medium. Comics. Films. Novels. Short Fiction and Nonfiction. In my own personal repository of work, I've accrued a comic series, a half-finished novel, a film screenplay, several short works, and dozens of story concepts still in the planning phase.
My question concerns finding a place to start. The entire process of querying agents seems daunting. I don't want to just pick one at a whim. These are human beings with unique interests and tastes, and I'm at a loss for how to woo them with my work, when it seems that everyone else is trying to do the same.
Where would you have me begin? If I find my writing comparable to another published writer, would the best place to start be the people that represent them?
Actually, you have to be careful querying agents who represent books comparable to yours. If it is too comparable, they’re not going to want to represent a book that might compete with their other books.
But my main concern is not your query process. I’m concerned that you have too many projects and not enough focus. You need to focus on one of those projects—the one that you feel most passionate about and could see yourself working on for the next couple of years. Once you’ve found one, I repeat one project to query, then you should go over this Ask the Agent and learn how to find agents perfect for your project and the right way to query.
There is no miracle ink that will set you apart from all the other queriers. You have to have talent, and if you don’t have natural talent, you have to work on it. Which means persistence and dedication. But agents and editors are trained to recognize great writing. Be straightforward in your query. Make us like you and make your manuscript seem as interesting as possible (without lying). These are the things that will get you past the other wooers.
Pro tip: As I mentioned before, no agent wants to be queried with a million projects in one query letter. It doesn’t bode well. Focus is very high on the list of “must haves” to be a writer. Find that one project you love, perfect it, and then start querying.
Thank your for all the wonderful questions this week. "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch" -Garrison Keillor
Have a question about the publishing industry? I would love to discuss the specifics of researching and querying agents, finding the right agent, proper publishing etiquette, how to go from idea to completed manuscript, marketing yourself, social media for writers, and anything else you can think of! I am now taking questions for Issue 11 of Ask the Agent. Issue 11 answers will be posted Monday, November 26th.
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