Hen&inkblots: A Literary Blog

Be the Lemon Square – Top Submission Tips from My Internship with Kid-Lit Super Agent C

October 29, 2012 by Mima Tipper

First a little backstory:

Six or so months after receiving my MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, I hit the agent-hunt trail with my completed YA novel. I was ready, too, having spent plenty of time doing my get-an-agent homework, i.e, talking to agented writer-friends, trolling the internet for info re: submitting to agents, and, of course, polishing my query letter to a blinding shine. Those efforts panned out—somewhat. I got great feedback and a few requests for my novel, but *sigh* not the ever- elusive offer of representation.

Then Twitter delivered Kid-Lit Super Agent C’s call for interns.

(An aside—I’d identify Agent C, but the opinions in this piece are my own so, well, I’m keeping them my own.)

I wanted an agent, so what better way to get one, then to slip on the proverbial shoes? I knew I’d learn a lot, and I did, much of it paralleling the whole enchilada of agent-hunting tips I’d garnered already.

What I didn’t understand fully until I wore those agenty shoes for a few months, however, is what I want to share here. And let’s be clear, I’m a writer first; while I did my time with Super Agent C, I still clopped about in the shoes of the writers of every submission and manuscript I read. That said, when my responses to my internship duties began to surprise me, I took note. What I found was that my theoretical understanding of all the submissions advice I’d digested paled in comparison to the tangible, practical understanding gained by doing some hands-on agent work, especially evaluating queries in Super Agent C’s sub-box.

So here goes, my friends, my down and hopefully not-too-dirty top tips for writers submitting to agents, including a little more explanation of the why behind the tips: (Please take note of the “given” of first things first. The following only applies if you have in hand: a) a shiny finished manuscript and b) a list of agents rep’ing your genre).

  • Follow submission guidelines to the letter. I’ve read this tip many, many times. Seems clear enough. What I didn’t know is how I’d feel about submissions that didn’t follow the guidelines (and many don’t). Clearly erroneous submissions clogging agent in-boxes = mad-annoying, but something else occurred to me, too: why would I want to work with a writer who won’t even take the time to follow simple guidelines? What kind of relationship will that be when the stakes are higher? (Read: when working on revisions). Just how much more brilliant do the requested pages have to be to make me forget about this carelessness with guideline followage? It’s too easy, my friends—make sure you follow the guidelines. Read them again the day of submission. If I could give only one tip, this would be it.
  • Keep your query letter short. Bar none, after reading piles of queries, nothing deflated me faster than clicking open a sub and having a fat brick of single-spaced query smack me in the eye. Sure I’d read those queries, give them their due, but not with a happy smiley face. Trust me, you want agents or their interns to have a happy smiley face when they read your sub. So, consider trying three short paragraphs. I’m partial to the following construct: 1) Dear Mr/Ms. Agent, I chose you because (points for taking the time to find a personal reason). Would you consider rep’ing my book (inc. word count). 2) Short, punchy para à la jacket flap copy about the book (with a focus on the protagonist). 3) A bit about the writer and any appropriate Writing-Cred (more on this later). And of course, a polite closing.
  • Make the tone of your query letter match the tone of requested pages. There’s something uniquely unsettling about a query letter that promises a certain kind of book followed by pages that don’t fulfill that promise. Subs like this made, “Danger, danger,” sing in my head, as in, “Hunh? What’s going on here?” and “How well does this writer know his/her own book?”
  • Develop Voice. Yes I, too, have read many articles about the importance of Voice. And from a reading/writing perspective all of us writers know Voice is crucial. Thinking from an agent-evaluative standpoint, however, Voice takes on a new level of importance, as in, “Do I want to follow this Voice through revision?” Yes, every sub or mss I read for my lovely Super Agent C needed loads of work. Even books of existing clients. Bottom-line is that an agent’s got to love the heck out of a book’s Voice in its rough and murky state to want to follow it through the possible dark of a l-o-n-g revision.
  • Focus on Appropriate Credentials. I always thought Credentials showed an agent that a writer could write. As an intern, however, what I really wanted Credentials to tell me was whether a writer could revise. So, yeah, highlight Credentials that show revision skills, as in: “I have an MFA in Writing” (tells the agent you know about critiquing and have practiced revision). “I’ve published this or that” (tells the agent you’ve worked with an editor and…yeah, you get the idea).
  • Avoid Sub Pet Peeves. Raise your hand if you’ve read an article about how agents don’t like subs that start with scenes like: a dream sequence, a nerd-boy protagonist bullied in the schoolyard, or maybe a protag self-describing while looking in the mirror. Yup, I’ve read those articles, too, yet I’ve also read wonderful and recently pub’d books that use these constructs. Hmm. What to think? What I came to understand (after reading a couple hundred subs) is that while these constructs are perfectly good, it’s near impossible to make them stand out in a mega-crowded field of submissions where dozens of writers are using them. At the risk of sounding like my Mom-self, I’ll repeat—dozens. Even if you think your version is the double chocolate fudge cake version, it will be sitting on the submissions-buffet with a whole bunch of other chocolatey versions. Trust me, if at all possible make your sub the lemon square. Yes. Words to live by. In a field of chocolate cake, be the lemon square.

And that’s about it, my lovelies. Yeah, I’ve got loads more I could share from my fantastic and educational six months with Super Agent C, but the previous six tips informed my next (and ultimately successful) agent search. Hope any of them offer you new insight to the art of agent-submission.

A bit of a PS: Wouldn’t dream of down-playing the contributions of all the writers, editors and agents who’ve spent countless hours of their valuable writing, editing and agenting time creating the treasure trove of information available on all subjects writing and publishing. So a loud shout-out to you guys; you are generous beyond belief and I salute each and every one of you.

Peace and happy querying.