Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Let’s talk prerequisites. Education requires prerequisites for many classes. Career moves often require prerequisites before climbing the ladder. What about approaching an agent? Are there prerequisites? Let’s look at three often-recommended prerequisites:
1. Before I approach an agent, should I have my book completed? That’s a good question to which there are a number of answers. (a) If you are writing a nonfiction book and have some writing experience, it’s usually unnecessary. Most nonfiction books are sold based on the complete proposal– including a chapter-by-chapter summary–and three chapters. (b) If you are a published author, chances are the agent you’ve pinpointed will read your published work to decide. All she’ll need to see from you is your proposal–including synopsis–and about fifty pages. (c) If you are a much-published novelist, you probably won’t even need your next book synopsis–the agent will already be familiar with your work. Just pick up the phone. (d) If you are a debut novelist, you’ll need to have the proposal, including synopsis, and the complete manuscript.
2. Before I approach an agent should I have my manuscript professionally edited? No. Okay, let me soften that a bit. It depends on how much the editor does. An agent needs to judge your work and your voice. Unless you and the professional editor come as a package deal for every future project, how can the agent tell which part is you and which part is the editor? It’s like having your mom help with your homework. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have other eyes look at your manuscript. Critique groups are great for pointing out gaps in your story or illogical jumps in your reasoning. The difference is, they usually don’t fix it. You solve the problems yourself. That said, some editing services do that very kind of editing for you–pointing out the weak spots and letting you solve the problems yourself. That kind of editing is fine.
But what about copy editing for spelling and grammar? There’s probably nothing inherently wrong with this since the manuscript needs to be near-perfect, but if you’re going to be a writer, isn’t this one of those skills you need to attain yourself?
3. Before I approach an agent, what should I know about that agent? As much as you can. I’d love to see a study done comparing the effectiveness of targeted queries vs. the shotgun approach. I’m guessing that no matter how wide the shotgun scatter, the targeted, individual query nets far better results. These days it’s so easy to research agents. Their websites spell out their distinctives; their likes and dislikes; and highlight many of their projects and clients. You can almost always find submission guidelines on the site as well. Instead of sending out a “dear agent” email, you select the agents with whom you’d most enjoy working. When you query the agent, you do it by name, and you explain why you chose them.
We see far too many queries that are scatter-gunned out there, sometimes by the author and way too often by a supposed agent-find service. One quick look tells us that the writer has no idea what we do or who we are. If, at this honeymoon stage, a writer can’t invest in due diligence and target his queries, why would we think he’d be able to study the market and target his readers? Yes, it takes a huge investment of time. And yes, the process is slow and tortuous, but this is nothing compared to the next steps. Being a working writer is not for the faint of heart.
But here’s the good part: Once you’ve found your agent, she’s made the sale, and you are connecting with your readers, I’m guessing you’ll be the first to raise your hand and confess that it’s all the worth the pain.
Now it’s your turn. What “Before I Approach an Agent” question did I forget to address?