Literary Agent Advice
It is universally claimed that one of the major reasons submissions get rejected is because of grammar errors. That an agent will take one look at the spotty pages and toss it out.
So those of you who have done the research and understand the submission process to the best you can, of course you comb through your pages, even futilely AFTER you send it (I see you, you anxiety-ridden worker bees). And upon re-reading you discover that you misplaced a comma, or even worse, misused a homophone! So you agonize when that rejection letter comes in, was it because you spelled the witch’s altar with an “e”? How could you have been so dumb?
I’m here to reassure you. We are human, we make mistakes. Publishers have entire departments whose soul job (see what I did there?) is to make sure their content is grammar-error free. And even then it’s not a hundred percent, we’ve all caught a random error in a published book.
Sure, there are professionals (or people in general) who will judge your pre-published work based on its grammatical precision. But before you label yourself stupid or inferior for making those mistakes, try to see the bigger picture.
“Perfect” grammar is an inherently classist concept (PrintRun Podcast has a wonderful episode about this: Grammar and Power). Someone who belittles others about grammar, had the privilege of an elite education. They are attempting to wield power–their intention is to make you feel inferior, nothing else.
And by default, agents sit in a position of power. Power creates hubris. It’s a reality we’ve all been faced with. Some deal with it better than others.
So turn the picture around. Consider what you want in a literary agent. If an agent actually rejects your submission because of specific grammar errors (potentially rules that you were not educated in) do you want to work with them? Coming from such different perspectives, will they understand or relate to the content and be able to champion it with the passion and sensitivity it deserves?
This is not to say you should toss all your grammar concerns aside. Odds are your submission isn’t getting very far because your writing is underdeveloped. Writing is first and foremost an apprenticeship. You should be continuously honing your skills, including your proof-reading abilities, so your prose reaches toward your ultimate goal, whether it be more elevated, more streamlined, easier to read, more beautiful etc.
This may seem like conflicting advice, don’t worry and do worry about grammar. To be clear, understanding why grammar is important and how to wield it, can and will strengthen your writing. This education is an attainable power, but there is no shame in your ignorance of it. Your path is different, but your work is not inferior. Anyone who tells you different, whatever position of power they hold, is the one with the complex.
I recently read an interesting post on Pub(lishing) Crawl by Patrice Caldwell about the importance of shutting out external noise in order to better focus on your writing. (Fyi, Pub Crawl is a fantastic resource for writers. Y’all should be following.) This post really hit home. In particular her discussion of “echo chambers,” and how your support circle can become one, and because of this actually fail to support you. It’s so true, and not just for writers.
As a West Coast literary agent, the majority of my work happens online. Online, the echo chamber becomes more pronounced. On social media I follow and interact with a lot of publishing professionals. My feed is full of success stories, major deal announcements, and “advice to writers.” My mornings are spent browsing Publishers Marketplace and answering NYC-based emails. When I’m not reading submissions, I’m reading those books that recently “made it,” Newberry award winners, Hugo award winners, NYT bestsellers etc. Podcasts such as Print Run and blogs like Pub Crawl and Jane Friedman fill my subscription inbox. It is a lot of cyclical information.
These helpful resources are full of supportive and amazing people.
There is constant competition within this echo chamber. Everyone wants the next big deal, and we want it now. We want to be a part of the exclusive inner circle where magical connections spark best sellers (spoiler, there is no inner circle). Tweets that go viral and books that get buzzy film deals. Instant gratification in an industry that rarely gives anything instantly. It’s a constant tease that there could always be a bigger, better opportunity around the corner.
It’s so easy to lose sight of the reason I became a literary agent.
That love of reading. A passion to bring amazing words to more readers. To champion under-represented voices. To change the world as only literature can. To reach that shy girl who spent her nights with a nose pressed into a book, reading about a world so much bigger than the limited one she was growing up in. That teenager in the throes of hormonal depression reading that she was not alone, that young woman traveling to faraway places because she had been inspired by the words on a page. To the grad student having an internal feminist revolution with experimental fiction, and the new mother fighting drowning in post-partum blues with beautiful prose. They are why I’m here.
It’s important to step away from the noise, to take a breath and remember why we do what we do, as I am reminding myself right now. If you are online (maybe your agent made you start tweeting, so potential editors could stalk you) try to filter the noise the best you can. Go to bookstores and libraries, meet people in person and have face-to-face conversations. Remind yourself that what you see online is only a small piece of the big picture.
Don’t get lost in the echo.
Beginning of day. The sun is up, kid is dropped off at school. Time for work.
- Answer emails.
- Finish reading the last quarter of a client’s latest manuscript, it’s so good, but have some feedback before it goes out to editors.
- Take another look at that intriguing submission in the inbox.
What actually happened:
- The final version of that major contract that has been under negotiations for months lands. It needs a last pass before the author can sign it.
- The first version of an audio contract for another project comes in. Needs to be looked over.
- An editor expresses interest in a submission. It’s too early to tell, but must nudge everyone else who has it!
- The cover of a different project has been finalized. It’s super beautiful and there’s all kinds of buzz. Time to alert the subagents and pitch it to audio!
- A revise and resubmit from a year ago drops into the inbox. And it’s already got 3 other agents reading the full! Read a few chapters, it’s really really good and lands the wishlist. Shit.
- An audio offer comes in already from the finalized cover project. Inform the client of the happy news and negotiate the deal memo.
- A client is having a meltdown, need to talk to them asap.
- Foreign rights sub-agent is asking about the book sales.
- Did I have coffee yet?
- An editor responds to a submission. It’s a rejection. Ugh. Have to tell the client.
- Another editor requests a different submission. Exciting!
- Another client sends their final manuscript. It’s ready to go out on submission. Have to develop the pitch.
- Really need to finish the final quarter of that other client’s manuscript and write up my feedback.
End of day. Picked up kid from school, sun is down, still working through emails.
Wait, I was going to read that submission…
With the wealth of query tips, agent advice, and submission guidelines out there, you’ve probably honed your query to the finest point. You’ve had it proofread and polished. Maybe this isn’t even your first go, maybe this is the third or fourth time you’ve drafted a query letter. You’ve researched literary agencies extensively. At this point you’re not worried about the basics, you know what you’re doing.
But the finer points still nag you. Like do you include that short story that was published six years ago? Or do you put the comp titles at the beginning or the end? And, the question that seems to come up again and again, agent personalization, how much is too much?
(For those of you new to the query trenches: Agent personalization means that you have researched said agent before querying them, and you indicate this in the query.)
In this current age of social media, it’s hard to know where the line is. Agent X is always posting pictures of her beloved cat, and you also love cats, so why not mention Mr. Whiskers? But then Agent Y is tweeting about that creepy vibe he got from the author who mentioned his dog’s name. Did you say too much? (Probably yes you did.)
To prevent yourself from getting into the creepster zone, remember this. Literary agents have online personas. We want authors to find us, to know about us AS LITERARY AGENTS. So if Agent X is posting pictures of her cat on her public agent profile, and engaging with authors about her pet, and your book happens to be about cats, then by all means, mention Mr. Whiskers. (For example, I make my love of Doctor Who widely known, because I would love to find a project that has a similar vibe.)
But if Agent Y posted pictures of his dog on his personal page, even if it’s “public” better to leave it alone. Because although we agents understand that some authors will go to extensive lengths to research us, we do have personal boundaries and want them respected. Agent Y may be a more private person than Agent X, and if you can’t find any information about him other than what genres he represents, that’s okay. All you need to personalize his query is:
“As you represent [genre], I think you will be interested in my 75k [same genre] novel entitled XXX.”
That’s it. You’ve personalized the letter. Far more than average actually.
Pssst. This personalization will work for Agent X as well.
The submission process has been nicknamed the “query trenches” by the legion of aspiring writers online. With good reason. If you are serious about finding an agent, you must spend a lot of time researching literary agencies and polishing your submission material. After this careful preparation, you enter the “trenches”, submitting to each agent in accordance with their specific guidelines. All while navigating the endless posts/tweets/comments by publishing professionals about the horrific mistakes they see writers make, and trying not to get killed by rejection letters.
When I was in the query trenches myself, once I received a rejection letter for my angel/demon novel, then that same agent tweeted a minute later how annoyed she was that writers continued to submit angel/demon manuscripts to her, despite her regular tweets that she wasn’t interested. I was mortified. I thought I’d made the worst mistake ever, almost as bad as the dreaded grammar-error-in-query-letter (gasp!). I could never show my face in that agency’s submission inbox again.
I was wrong of course. Making a mistake in your submission is not the end of the line. You should do as much research as you can and polish your submission until it gleams. But errors happen. We don’t auto-reject authors just because they misspelled a word or incorrectly identified their subgenre. Trust me, we can tell when an author has worked hard on their submission materials versus slapping something together. Treat the query process as you would a job search, with professionalism, and we agents will return the favor. Although, I’m guessing if you are agonizing about that error in your sub, you probably already fall in this category. So know that if we passed on your carefully-edited query, it’s because it wasn’t a good fit, not because of the way you used “whom.” (Don’t use this post as an excuse to be lazy though, you should have multiple people proofread that query!) And, we’d be more than happy to see your next project when it’s ready.
I was asked specifically on Twitter about this, so here’s a list of “mistakes” authors make that will actually cause an agent to blacklist you.
- Being rude and unprofessional
- Responding to our rejection with angry/hurtful comments (see 1.)
- Badmouthing us online (see 1.)
- All of the above
Happy 2019 everyone! New year, new start. I am pleased that I have reduced the number of submissions in my inbox to under 5. In part thanks to to the help of my wonderful assistant, Amber, who is an excellent reader. In 2018, I received over a thousand queries while I was open to submissions during Aug-Nov. Of those I ended up signing two clients. Both in the adult literary speculative space, Veronica Henry and Yume Kitasei. Very excited to introduce their amazing projects to the world in 2019. Both were cold queries, but both had done careful research and knew their projects were exactly to my taste. For neither was this project the first they’d written. So their persistence and research paid off. The query trenches are difficult, but it is where the majority of authors are picked up by agents, despite rumors to the contrary. So don’t give up! Cheers, and I look forward to reading.
Kimberley Cameron & Associates is hosting another Query Boot Camp via Writer’s Digest January 15-18. Get four hours of online time with me or one of our other agents to ask ANY questions you might have about publishing and writing*. Maybe you want to know if dragons make good romantic heroes, or what is the average word count for middle grade, or why you shouldn’t start your novel with the character staring in the mirror even if they’re a zombie. Or perhaps you want a peek behind the curtain on the daily work life of an agent, do we really cackle loudly as we throw queries in the trash and eat unsuspecting new authors for breakfast? I promise an honest and fun forum! There’s an added bonus of a query and sample critique after the course is over. It doesn’t matter if you are ready to query or just putting the first words of your novel down. Click the image below to enroll. Sign up soon as spots fill up!
*If you’re writing nonfiction I recommend requesting to join Elizabeth Kracht’s group as the rest of us don’t represent nonfiction.
I know I haven’t posted much this year. I blame this adorable face.
Seriously though. If you have any posts you’d love to see in 2019, questions about publishing, peeks behind the agent curtain, editorial advice, comment here.
Many exciting things happened in 2018 for my clients, deals, awards, sequels, and I couldn’t be prouder.
I will be open to submissions January 1, 2019, and I hope (this may be too optimistic) to respond to all remaining queries, partials, and fulls by that date. Until then, may there be lots of joy and celebration and cozy reading time for everyone.
Happy New Year!