I’m going to do something strange: I’m going to be constructive. I have donned my Tumblemoose trapper’s hat, and I’m going to offer some advice, á la George. Note that I didn’t say I’m going to be positive. That may also happen, we’ll just have to see.
Let’s chat about novels. I know you’re writing one. Of course you are. What self-respecting writer isn’t? So, how’s it going? If you’re past your first couple of chapters – let’s say 20 pages – and you also have the rest pretty much planned out, then you’re writing a novel and well done. If you’ve written less than that, and it’s taken most of your adult life to do it, then what you have is not a novel-in-the-making, it’s merely a feeble salve to your guilty literary conscience.
But let’s assume you’ve finished a novel or you’re about to. What next? Get it off to a bunch of publishers, right?
The temptation is to go for the kill, but you’re very likely to just end up murdering months or years of hard work.
You need a literary agent. It’s a long while since I last looked to get anything published, so things may have changed, but I doubt it. You can’t cut out the middle-man, I’m afraid. Publishers use literary agents as a filtering tool. They simply don’t have the time or the human resources to read through the mountains of scripts we’d all love to send their way. When an agent submits work to a publisher, it says something. It says that someone in the know has the confidence that you can write, and that you’ve used that skill to form a pretty much finished article; it may need a little editorial input to tweak it into its final publishable form, but it’s basically all there.
For a literary agent to forward your work, they must feel that in so doing they are not about to screw their reputation. Publishers won’t accept too many under-par submissions from agents before they lose patience and start to doubt their eye for talent. That’s career over for the agent. As a writer, you need that level of validation.
The Bible for any writer in the UK is The Writer’s Handbook. You will no doubt have something very similar in the States and elsewhere. This gives you all the info you need to get your work out there, whether you’re looking at book publishers, magazines, newspapers, or, most importantly for a novelist, literary agents.
It is crucial that you properly target your agent. The biggest is not necessarily the best if they don’t like the kind of material you’re hawking. You absolutely have to float their boat, right from the off. Many agents specialise, and if you send them anything they haven’t asked for, it’s straight in the trash.
And when I say “asked for”, I mean it. Even if you find an agent who works in your genre, you need to adhere to their submission instructions to the letter. That may involve nothing more than an introductory note from you, briefly explaining your background and what the novel is about. Or it may be one or some or all of the following: a letter, a full CV, a synopsis, a three page outline, a specified number of sample chapters of your choice, the opening five pages …
Very often, if an agent wants to read anything of your novel, it will certainly include the opening few pages. If that makes you frown because your novel doesn’t really get going until chapter three, you need to rewrite the opening. Agents know that commissioning editors who aren’t hooked by the end of the first page or so will probably not read any further and will give their big REJECT stamp another push into its red ink pad – that’s if it’s dried from branding the last effort. The sample chapters of your own choice is your Get-Out-Of-Trash card. This is the agent giving you the benefit of the doubt; saying, okay, your opening stinks, but convince me … show me you can write. A gifted writer can always rewrite their opening if that’s the only problem.
But far better you do so before it gets to them.
The bottom line is not to rush this last stage. A novel takes time to complete. It would be a shame if that was all for nought. Don’t be so focused on the finishing line that you start ploughing through the final hurdles without trying to jump them. You will trip up.