Get Informed ● Get Inspired ● Get Published

Six Steps for Submitting Your Work to Agents

An easy and professional game plan for finding literary representation

1) Do your research. Agents specialize, which means they have more experience and publishing connections in specific areas of fiction. Researching agents, before you submit to them, will significantly increase your chances of finding the right agent for your novel. Start by making a list of agents who represent and are looking for your genre of writing. There is a wealth of information on literary agents both on the Internet and in print. You’ll find some of these sites under my resources list. In future postings I’ll cover the agent research process in more depth and review several of these sites and resources.

2) Polish your query letter. Have a friend or someone in your critique group proof your query letter, synopsis, first pages or anything else you are submitting to an agent. Don’t let a typo blow your opportunity.

See previous posts for how to write an attention-getting query letter that will stand out from the pile.

3) Follow the agent’s submission guidelines. This should be a no brainer, but I often hear agents cite this as one of their major pet peeves. Would you want to work with someone who doesn’t listen to your needs and can’t follow basic instructions? Most agents’ websites tell you exactly what they want to see for an initial query. It’s important to know, for example, if they want only a query letter, or a synopsis or the first five pages of the manuscript. Many agents accept only email queries. Some will delete your email if it contains attachments. So follow those guidelines to the letter.

4) Submit in multiples. You can send your query letter to one agent at a time and wait to hear back from each agent. But you may be 106 before your book is published. Writing a novel can take years. Publishing a book takes a year and a half to two. So when you have your manuscript polished and ready to send out to the world, I suspect you’re ready to find an agent and get your book published now.

Set a reasonable goal for yourself. Maybe you want to send 10 queries a month. Personally, I like to send out seven queries on each new moon. Some agents like to know if they are receiving a multiple submission. If an agent states this in her guidelines, then tell her you are submitting to other agents. However, agents can assume they are not the only one receiving your query, so why waste precious space in your letter or email telling them something they already know?

5) Keep track of your submissions. There are great online tools, like for keeping a record of your submissions, or you can build your own database in a program like Excel. The main information you want to keep track of includes: agent name, date queried, email or snail mail, manuscript name (if you are querying more than one manuscript), any attachments or enclosures, agent’s stated turnaround time, and other pertinent information about the agent.

When you receive an agent’s request to see pages or the entire manuscript, note this in your database. After you send the material, pencil a follow-up date in your calendar. Agents typically note their turnaround time on their website, anywhere from three weeks to three months. If you haven’t heard from the agent in this time, send a reminder via email. If you submitted the pages/manuscript by email, simply forward your original email with the attachments and state that you are following up on the agent’s request. This way the agent doesn’t have to search for your original email. I’ve found that agents appreciate the reminder. But don’t call. Most agents are too busy to accept calls and without your manuscript and query in front of them, there won’t be much to talk about.

6) Don’t sit around waiting. Follow up and keep querying. Accept the fact that you’ll never hear from some agents and focus on the others. Keep track of rejections and requests for pages in your database. Hang the encouraging, positive rejections by your computer. Dust off your query letter each month, keep researching agents and keep submitting. The next agent you query could be the one!

Coming soon: “How to Find the Right Agent for Your book – and Your Career”

The Secret Ingredient in Query Letters

Personalize your pitch

You’ve written a winning query letter with “the hook, the book, and the cook.” Then, you’ve researched agents who are looking for your type of novel. Don’t worry if you haven’t done this yet; I’ll show you how to find the right agents in a future post.

The final step in writing your query letter is to personalize it with a line or two that speaks directly to the agent. Here are a few ways to personalize the opening of your query:

Mention how you found the agent. E.g., “I learned about you and your agency on and researched your recent deals on Publishers Marketplace.”

Reference how you learned that the agent represents your genre. E.g. “I understand from your website you are interested in upmarket commercial women’s fiction.”

Gush about how impressed you are with a novel the agent represents. But only if it’s similar to yours. E.g., “Since you represent Jane Coltron’s Leave Her to Heaven, one of my favorite novels, I thought you would be the perfect agent to represent my historical romance, Love’s Last Goodbye.”

If you were referred by a friend or fellow writer – definitely open with this. Just be sure you mention the writer, preferably someone the writer represents. And be certain your writer friend is cool with you approaching his agent.

If you pitched the agent at a conference – of course start with this. Remind her of the name of the conference. At the end of the letter, when you mention your enclosure(s), remind her that these were materials she requested.

Okay, it’s is a little ego stroking, but what agent doesn’t like the strokes. Sure beats receiving a letter that starts with “Dear Agent” and looks like it was photocopied and sent off to the first thirty agents listed in a phone book.

By opening with something specific about the agent, you’re showing that agent four things:
1) You’re a professional who does his homework.
2) You know what genres the agent represents and/or is currently looking for.
3) You have targeted the agent specifically as one you’d like to represent you.
4) You are someone who cares about the writer/agent relationship and not an egocentric writer only concern with yourself.

At the end of your letter, after the bio, list anything you have enclosed or attached. Follow the agent’s submission guidelines to the letter and do not include more or less then requested unless you have met the agent personally and she asked you to send additional pages or synopsis. Submission guidelines are generally found on the agency’s website. Don’t try to impress the agent with your creativity by varying from the agent’s guidelines. This only tells the agent you’re a writer who is not going to pay attention and can’t follow direction. Always remember, in addition to good writers, agents want to work with professionals.

End your query with a line thanking the agent for considering your work. E.g., “Thank you for your consideration of Susan’s Strange Summer.”

Learn from those who have succeeded. The shows you more than forty successful query letters and comments by agents on why they worked. Check it out at:,category,Successful%20Queries.aspx

The “cook,” your mini-biography

Present yourself as a career writer

Hopefully, you are following the industry standard format for query letters, often known as “the hook, the book, and the cook.” You’ve started with a great “hook” to capture an agent’s attention. Then you’ve summarized your “book” in two or three paragraphs. Now, tell them about you – the “cook” – in the biography (bio) paragraph.

Don’t be nervous. It’s only a couple of lines, and you don’t need an MFA or to be published to have a writer’s bio. The purpose of the bio is show agents you are a professional who’s serious about a career as an author – that’s all.

Education and experience demonstrate your commitment to writing, so include:

Publishing credits. Nonfiction counts, so do trade journals. If you were paid for it, it shows you’re a professional writer.

Work experience related to writing. E.g., editor of your company newsletter, newspaper reporter, columnist for the local paper, your regular blog.

Education. Include it if you have an MFA, certificate in writing, or a degree in English, communications, or journalism.

Writing awards, residencies. Preferably these are related to fiction, rather than nonfiction. Even better if you won them for an excerpt from the novel you are querying the agent about.

What if you have no previous writing experience or credits?
Remember, the purpose of the bio is to show an agent you are serious about a career as an author. I’ve heard agents say many times that the only reason they want to know something about the writer is to weed out the crazies (I am referring to the slang definition: an unpredictable, nonconforming person; oddball). If an agent is going to invest significant time in developing your career, he or she wants to know you’re a professional who's serious about your craft and willing to promote your book at school visits, author signings, etc. Agents are looking for a long-term relationship with a career author, not a one-book wonder.

Tell them you’re serious about your writing by mentioning:

Writing classes. E.g. “For the last five years I’ve attended writing workshops at The New School in New York City.”

Critique groups. E.g., “I am a long-standing member of a critique group focused on middle-grade novels.”

How long you’ve been writing. Five, ten, fifteen years; this speaks to your commitment to make this your career.

The number of novels you have written. It doesn’t matter if they are unpublished; again, it speaks to your diligence to make it as a writer.

When the “cook” becomes the “hook”
If you recently received your MFA from a prestigious college, or your manuscript (or excerpt from it) won a significant award, you might want to start your query letter talking about that. These are the kind of achievements that get an agent salivating, because you’ve established yourself as a professional writer right up front. The agent has to read on.

Here’s my bio from a recent query letter:

I am a graduate of the UCLA Writers Program in Creative Writing. As a marketing/communications writer and editor for eighteen years, I have produced nonfiction articles for numerous corporate and trade publications. I recently launched a marketing services business and blog ( to inspire and empower writers on their journey to publication.

Next post: The Secret Ingredient in Query Letters

Presenting the “Book” in your Query Letter

Less is more when describing your story

At this year’s Willamette Writers Conference, agents and editors kept prodding writers to describe their novels in two to three sentences. This left some writers scrambling to make their pitches more succinct. With agents busier than ever, this law of brevity also applies to the query letter. In the standard “the hook, the book, and the cook” format, the book is a mini synopsis of your manuscript and typically two to five paragraphs. But what I’m hearing from agents is the quicker you can tell your story, the better.

In the “hook” line (See the last post for more on the hook.) you’ve already given the title, the genre, the word count, the central characters, the conflict, and the setting (if important to the story). Now start a new paragraph.There are no hard and fast rules for telling your unique story. But here are a few tried and true techniques:

Include an excerpt from your manuscript. This works if the excerpt highlights the theme of your story and showcases your craft.

Compare your manuscript to one or more published novels or writers. For example, Strange Happenings is a story of moral dilemma in the style of Jodi Picoult.

Tell the basic story structure. Write it in present tense. Include most, but not necessarily all, of these story elements:
The set up. What’s happening on page one?
A brief description of main character(s) (protagonist), unless you’ve already included this in your hook. Not a physical description, but rather a description of your protagonist’s main characteristics or emotional state (e.g., optimistic, tortured, grieving)
The conflict. What is standing in the way of what your character wants?
• The antagonist. How does the antagonist prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her desires.
Inciting incident. What propels the central character into action?
Major plot points. One or two plot points or emotional turning points.

Don’t give away the ending. This is a tease, similar to the copy you’d find on a book jacket. Here are the two summary paragraphs from the query for my middle grade novel, The Haunting of Claire Crawford:

Everything in Claire’s life changed with her brother’s diagnosis. Now she’s in a new town, her brother is a stranger, and Claire’s afraid she too will succumb to mental illness. A family of eight moves into the Victorian house next door and Claire becomes fast friends with Sara, whose stable family life is a stark contrast to the chaos in Claire’s.

Claire and Sara discover a secret room in Sara’s house, filled with letters, photographs, and the buried hopes of an elderly recluse, the previous owner who recently passed away. The girls playact scenes of the woman’s early years as a photographer in the 1940s, and Claire discovers a story of lost dreams that closely reflects her own. As Claire braces for her brother’s return home, she fears she’ll lose her friendship with Sara. Worst yet, Claire fears for her own sanity when she falls under the spell of the old house. Yet the secret to Claire’s own survival lays hidden within its walls.

See if you can tell - and sell - your story in two paragraphs or less.

If you find this information useful, please show your support by becoming a regular reader of my blog. Simply click on the “follower” button under my profile. You can sign in using your BlogSpot, Google, Twitter, or Yahoo account info. You won’t receive emails. Please click on the icons below to share this blog on Facebook or Twitter or email it to fellow writers.

How to “Hook” an Agent

Lessons from the Willamette Writers Conference

Last week I attended the 41st annual Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. It didn’t surprise me that a number of editors and agents referred to the standard query letter format as “the hook, the book, and the cook” (as described in last week’s post). What did surprise me was the astounding number of queries agents receive. Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency said she reviews 1,200 to 1,500 a month.

Imagine having to wade through that many emails and letters to find a manuscript that perks your interest, and in a genre you represent. The reality is that agents can’t give more than a few seconds of their attention to each query. Your opening line needs to hook them and reel them in.

A hook is one line (generally) that accomplishes three things:
1) Summarizes your story
2) Identifies the genre or readership (e.g., women’s contemporary, mainstream, mystery)

3) Grabs the reader’s attention so they’ll read on

A Hook Includes:

Your Title. The publisher may change it, but a good working title can help sell your book.

A summary of Your Story. I know that’s hard to do in one line. In screenwriting, it’s referred to as the “log line.” Include:
     • The central character(s)
     • The central character’s main challenge or conflict
     • The location or time period if it’s critical to the story

The Genre. Include it unless it is blatantly obvious from your story description. Agents want to know where your book will be shelved at Barnes and Noble. Ask yourself:
     • Is it contemporary or historical? Is it crime fiction or a cozy mystery?
     • If you are writing for children, specify the reader’s age range or label it as a
       chapter book, middle grade, or young adult

Word Length. Be sure your book is the standard length for the type of novel you’re writing. A 30,000-word mystery or a 150,000-word young adult novel will be a red flag to the agent that this writer doesn’t know his genre.

If your hook is over 45 words, it’s okay to put the genre and word length in a second sentence. Such as, “This is a 75,000-word work of historical magic realism."

Here’s the hook in the query letter for my middle grade novel:

The Haunting of Claire Crawford is a 40,000-word, middle-grade novel about a lonely  and imaginative twelve-year-old girl coming to terms with her brother’s schizophrenia by discovering the mysteries of the house next door.

In 37 words it provides the title, the central characters, the conflict, the genre, and the word length.

If you’d like to post your hook in the comments, I’d be happy to provide some feedback. Maybe others will want to chime in too.

Market Your Manuscript

Five sales tools needed to sell your novel to an agent or editor

Long before you market your novel to readers, you’ll be marketing your manuscript to literary agents and/or editors at publishing houses. Here’s an overview of the sales tools you’ll need. In the next few weeks I’ll cover each of these in detail.

1) Edited,  Complete Manuscript. This is your product. Make certain it’s the best product you can produce. But don’t waste years tinkering. If you’re on your twentieth round of edits, had your critique group or critique partner read your latest draft, and had a book doctor or professional editor give you feedback, you probably have a well-crafted manuscript ready for agents or editors to read. It’s time to send your baby out to the world. If you’re a compulsive editor like I am, don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to tweak your manuscript before publication.

A more common mistake new writers make is submitting their works too soon. Don’t do it. You’ll only be wasting your time and establishing your reputation as an amateur. Take time to hone your craft, join a critique group, receive professional feedback, and learn the art of self editing. While you’re working away on your novel, it’s the perfect time to learn as much as you can about the submission process. When you are ready to query and pitch agents, you’ll be ahead of the curve.

2) Pitch. You need at least two. The “elevator pitch” is the one liner you throw out to the agent you bump into at a cocktail party who asks “what are you writing?” The “big pitch” is a two-to-five minute description of your story used to sell your novel to an agent or editor during a writing conference pitch session.

3) Query Letter. This is your most important sales tool and the one you’ll be using the most. It’s a one page letter with a set format, often referred to as “the hook, the book, and the cook.” The opening hook is a one sentence description that differentiates your novel from anything else out there. The book is two to three short paragraphs about the story, similar to what you might find on a book jacket. The cook (that’s you) is a one paragraph biography (bio) pertinent to your writing experience.

4) Synopsis. One of the most challenging pieces to write. Generally written in present tense, even if your novel is in past tense. Include the central characters, main plot points, and the ending.

5) Bio. Although you’ll be including a brief bio in your query, some agents ask for a separate bio. Write it in third person and include any professional writing experience, the genres or areas you write, education, and publication credits. If you’re asking, “What if I don’t have any of those?” you’re not alone. A bio doesn’t need to be more than a paragraph and there is nothing wrong with approaching agents with no credentials. Mostly, an agent wants to know she’ll be dealing with a professional and that you’re willing and able to promote your book.