How to Submit to Agents – From an Agency’s Point of View

All agencies are run differently, and may attend to submissions in different ways. This can make it hard to know exactly how to pitch a manuscript.

In general terms, it is always wise to research the agent, their list and signs of preferred works or genres. Using sites (although some limited by subscription-only) such as The Bookseller or BookBrunch can provide a wider indication of industry trends, news and personnel. Within an agency of multiple agents, ensure that your submission is addressed to the agent whose tastes you think will most suit your work – misdirecting your enquiry may mean rejection from one, where another may have responded more positively.
In submitting, look to ensure that the following three points are attended to:

1. The Subject Line – The subject line of an email submission may seem trivial, but when a reader is presented with columns of unread emails, this can have significant bearing on which he or she is drawn to. Of course, most agencies will attend to emails in order – but drawing attention to your submission may lead the reader to open it out of curiosity. Vital in doing this is to include the relevant information: title, author, genre and word count. Genre should suggest whether the work is fiction or non-fiction, but include this if not clear. Any unpublished work should be placed within single quotation marks, e.g. ‘The Submission’. If to a general inbox, but aimed at a specific agent, include attn: NAME. Remember that the subject line of an email is the first impression given to the reader: the clearer and more straightforward this is, the easier the reader’s job is. The point here is that the reader’s eye is drawn not by broad statements or all-caps, but by a clear and concise demonstration of ability and understanding.

2. The Email – The email itself should be direct and simple in address, stating the details given in the subject line and briefly introducing yourself as an author – with any experience or information you feel relevant. Again, the more to-the-point this is, the more the reader’s interest will be maintained; stream-of-consciousness style addresses quickly lose the reader’s attention. Three short paragraphs would be an ideal length: the first stating the details about the manuscript (title, genre, word count) and a brief pitch (two or three lines); the second giving your information as an author (including experiences); the third signing off, i.e. ‘Thank you for your consideration, I hope you share my enthusiasm…’).

3. The Attachments – The standard when submitting to an agent is to attach a synopsis and first three chapters as Word documents. This is typically for ease of reading, so that documents (in my own experience) can be read as previews without having to be downloaded. To this end, it is helpful for the reader to have attachments as Word documents – endearingly so. The synopsis (and this is a debated issue) should be no more than a page in length. Its style is debated even more-so, with some preferring a cliff-hanger blurb-style and others opting for a direct beginning-middle-end. Try to strike a balance here, in giving a clear, causal structure of the plot whilst demonstrating its dramatic qualities.

In looking for an agent, you can use the Association of Authors’ Agents site and The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook as directories. In submitting, the main point to remember is that the reader is doing a job – likely, the easier it is for them to review your submission, the more disposed they’ll be to a reading.

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How to Structure a Strong Narrative

ken_follett_the_pillars_of_the_earth

Copyright Pan Macmillan Publishing

Following on from the post on the action-consequence principle in building a strong narrative plot, in this post I’ll illustrate how to build a narrative mini-arc, by using one of the greatest examples of accomplished narrative structure, Ken Follett’s masterpiece, The Pillars of the Earth.

According to the action-consequence principle, every event in a story has to be either the cause or the effect of another event. Events can’t take place randomly, in the shape Character X did Action A, then he did B, then C and so on. A story is stronger when events are arranged in such a way that Character X does Action A either because of a previous Action Z or in order for a later Action B to become possible.

This might sound confusing, so I’ll use an example.

Towards the end of Chapter 9 in Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, there is a battle scene of crucial significance in the story: Lord William Hamleigh’s army attacks the small village of Kingsbridge causing devastating harm and human damage.

It is essential that Kingsbridge villagers find out about the imminent attack before it occurs.

However, they don’t just happen to find out about it by chance. The episode is masterfully built using the technique of the narrative mini-arc and forms part of the larger structure of the story arc.

The mini-arc starts with a reflection scene from Tom Builder, one of the main characters, in which he looks back over the last few years, what he had achieved, how he had overcome the loss of his wife, found love again and how content he now was with his life, especially for having his little son, Jonathan, around every day.

This short episode of reflection brings the reader into the first action scene of this mini-arc: Tom seeks out Jonathan to take him out to a fair in the village. Note that even the small detail of bringing the child into the scene is not random. The author could have chosen to say, ‘Mid-morning, Tom sought out Jonathan to go out to a fair in the village,’ but why tell when you can show?

At the fair, during a rather gruesome bear-baiting scene, Jonathan gets lost. Tom starts looking for him and spots him high up on the scaffolding of the cathedral they are building. He climbs the scaffolding and in a painstakingly slow and tense scene, he brings the little boy down safely.

And then, while climbing down the scaffolding, Tom notices the approaching army. ‘There was a cloud of dust on the road leading to Kingsbridge, about half a mile away. After a moment, he realised he was looking at a large troop of men on horseback, approaching the town at a smart trot.’ (The Pillars of the Earth, Macmillan, 2009, p. 484).

From here on, we are thrown into a fierce action scene that lasts for the rest of the chapter.

Note how the author builds momentum through a series of action-consequence episodes to bring us to the climax of this mini-arc, which is the battle scene. The battle scene is a major event in so far that it acts as the cause that sets in motion a series of consequence-events, which all form part of the overall story arc.

After reading The Pillars of the Earth, one could easily liken storytelling and page-turning narratives to the construction of a cathedral: brick by brick, wall by wall, arc by arc.

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Introduction to Self-editing Fiction

Eleanor Evans

When writing fiction, countless hours are put into characters, scenes and a storyline and it would be surprising if an author did not become completely immersed in their work. As a result, it is normal for writers to fail to notice even the most obvious flaws in their writing.

As you have found this article, you have most likely already finished a piece of fiction writing. You should therefore look at the following advice with an aim of reviewing and self-editing your work. However, if you are in the process of writing, or simply contemplating about starting a piece of fiction, the following tips will still be useful for you to keep in mind as you write.

Plot and structure

As a basic rule, your story should have a strong beginning, middle and end with each chapter clearly moving the plotline forwards. The start of your novel should place the reader directly within the action and leave them eager to continue reading. Similarly, the pace of the book should keep the reader interested with a balance of dialogue and description, cliffhangers, and a build of tension. The ending of your novel is equally important and should be poignant, leaving the reader moved but also satisfied, with all of their questions being answered.

Characterisation

Characters are crucial to maintaining the interest of your reader, yet new writers often struggle to balance character development. Small characters with no real part in the plot are regularly examined in too much detail, being given a name and a background when it is not needed. Conversely, new writers regularly fall short on developing a main character. Whether through a physical description, through their dialogue and actions, or through flashback scenes, the reader should be able to picture key characters in their minds, what they look like, their mannerisms, and have some knowledge on the character’s background.

Narrative Voice and Point of View

The narrative voice of your novel is something that will primarily attract your reader, so make sure that it is strong and consistent, with a clear distinction against the character’s voice. Similarly, whether you are writing in the first or third person, the point of view must also remain consistent. If there is a change in point of view through your novel, make sure that this is marked with a new chapter or an asterisk.

Showing and Telling

Report-style writing is extremely common amongst new writers. Instead of telling the reader how a character is feeling e.g. “He was disappointed”, show it through their actions, what they say, or their face expressions. It may be worthwhile to go through your manuscript and spot all of the generic adjectives and adverbs that you have used, either exchanging them for a detailed description or for a more appropriate word choice e.g. “He stormed off”, rather than “He walked off sulkily”.

Dialogue

Dialogue within a piece of fiction is important, often being an extremely effective method of showing certain personality traits of a character, or filling the reader in on some background information. However, dialogue must always contribute something to the story so try to avoid unnecessary greetings or small talk.

With these tips, you should have a clear indication of where you are in the process of writing your novel, perhaps you require a little more time to review your writing and work on these points. However, it is important to note that although the guidelines above are referring to the most common flaws found in unpublished fiction manuscripts, there are many other aspects of writing that an author should reassess.

This blog should help self-editors along the way.

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Listings: UK Literary Agents and Festivals

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What Is an over-developed Character?

Characters are often under-developed in beginning fiction writing. An unknown villain is a common example. That is a villain whose characterisation is not strong or compelling enough to convince us that he or she can pose some seriously menacing adversity to the protagonist.

However, we can also encounter an over-developed character. An over-developed character is a character that comes with unnecessary development in the story.

Sometimes it can be as little as a dialogue line. Passing characters, for instance, a hotel receptionist with no relevance to the story, doesn’t need an active presence in a scene, if he or she will never be mentioned again. Example: “‘Good evening, sir, welcome to Ambassador Leisure,’ said the receptionist smiling. I handed her my passport and filled in my credit card details just before making my way to the lift.”  (Fictitional example). If such a frgament has no relevance to the story development, ditch it.

However, the most common encounter is a minor character with pages dedicated to his or her past. Don’t waste readers’ time with unnecessary details about your characters, such as their past, their family life, their work schedule, their hobbies, their lifestyle, their preference for underwear colour and texture. If the detail doesn’t add anything to the story development, ditch it.

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Generic Adjectives are Bad for your Style

What’s wrong with this fragment, found in a novel:

‘Their conversation was stilted’?

That’s right: it tells, it doesn’t show. Instead of creating a scene with the right atmosphere to show us that the awkwardness, boredom and self-consciousness of the characters involved in this conversation, the author chooses to summarise it all with a generic adjective: stilted.

For fiction, this is as good a report-writing. Imagine you were a witness of this conversation and you had to write a report about it. You would write a summary of it and you would use generic adjectives. They looked uncomfortable to be there, their conversation was stilted. You wouldn’t desciebe the scene, you’ll be unlikely to repeat their dialogue lines, the look in their eyes, the subtle gestures and facial expressions. But in fiction, it is exactly this kind of minimalism that creates atmospheric and immersive scenes to enrich our reading experience, not the report-writing.

To illustrate my point, I’ll use this beauitful fragment from Edgar A. Poe: “The forehead was high, and very pale, and singularly placid; and the once golden hair fell partially over it, and overshadowed the hollow temples with ringlets now black as the raven’s wing, and jarring discordantly, in their fantastic character, with the reigning melancholy of the countenance. The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and I shrunk involuntarily from their glassy stare to the contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips.” Here, Poe could have easily summarised it all with ‘Berenice looked ill’, but of course, he didn’t. He offered us instead a piece of real description and allowed us the opportunity to interact with his writing and understand the meaning of it, that she indeed looked ill.

Other generic adjectives to look out for and pluck out of your fiction writing, are ‘bad’, ‘sad’, ‘happy’, ‘gloomy’, ‘angry’, ‘delighted’, ‘elated’, ‘amused’ and so on. The best way to go about it is to schedule one editing session with generic adjectives in mind and go through the whole manuscript isolating them one by one and deciding whether a proper scene or description would be suitable instead.

For more on showing, not telling and how to avoid summarising in fiction, check out Self-Editing Fiction That Sells.

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Free Book Offer

If you always wanted to find out how your book fares and would also like to learn how to edit and improve it yourself, then July is your month.

You can submit your manuscript for assessment in July and, if you’re a new client, you will receive 10% off and a signed copy of Self-editing Fiction that Sells.

Find out more.

 

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