Hooking An Agent

by Julie Dinneen, Agent @ D4EO Literary

Literary agents get a lot of query letters – some as many as hundreds a day. They have to make quick decisions about you and your book based purely on that one-page letter and the first few pages of your novel. So how can you make yours stand out from the crowd? A few obvious, often-repeated basics you should do your best to absolutely nail:

  • Follow an agent’s submission guidelines. This is obviously a no-brainer. Yet I’m amazed by how many people neglect to do it. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling, if you don’t follow an agent’s guidelines, you’re already setting yourself up for rejection. You’ll get better much results if you do your research.
  • Keep it brief. Because of the volume of queries they receive, agents sometimes skim query letters. They want to know, concisely: 1) what the book is about, 2) who you are and what you’ve done that relates to the book you’ve written, 3) what genre the book fits into and how long it is. Don’t bog down your query with too much extra information or a description of the existential quest you were on when you wrote the book. Those details will be told by your manuscript.
  • Make it shine. A query letter that’s professional, well-written and well-edited stands out. Because – and this is continually surprising to me – around half of them aren’t. If there are typos or formatting issues, it makes a poor first impression. Your query says a lot about who you are as a writer and what you’d be like to work with. If your query is messy, chances are your manuscript is messier. Agents are much more likely to pass.
  • Be impressive. If you have an online presence, agents will look at how well you present. It’s better to have no presence at all than a poorly-executed one. Self-published books with homemade covers and unimpressive rankings, for example, are not going to attract an agent. Neither is an outdated blog. You’ve taken the time to write a novel. Make sure you take the time to make your profile shine. If you need to hire a professional to help you create a swish book cover or a clean website, it can be well worth the investment. There are plenty of good, affordable options out there. Some of them are even free.

Agents request full manuscripts from a very small percentage of the queries they receive. At a guess, around 5%. How, then, can you become part of that 5%?

 

Agents need to fall in love with your premise.

Agents need to fall in love with your writing.

Agents need to fall in love with your storytelling.

(And/or agents need to fall in love with your book’s market potential.)

 

Acing this trifecta is, of course, a difficult thing to do.

 

Premise

You’re a writer. You’re creative and you follow the directions your creativity leads you. Which is fine. No one’s asking you to follow trends. My advice is this: consider your reader. Picture yourself reading your manuscript to a stadium of 10,000 people. Let’s say they’re all within your target demographic. Would most of them fall asleep as you read? Or would they see themselves reflected in your characters? Would they be riveted by your characters’ plights and relate to them on a personal level? The bottom line is this: agents want books that will sell. Readers, including us, need to connect.

 

Writing

This is immediate. This is the music of your words that sings, fascinates and enchants. Agents can usually tell within the first few pages if a book is offering a journey they want to spend 5-10 hours inside of. Like any reader, we can tell right away if we’re in good hands. If the writing feels clunky or derivative or the mind is already wandering (I haven’t checked my emails in over twenty minutes. I need to remember to pick up the dry cleaning. I really should call my mother…), then you still have work to do. If the voice feels like someone the reader doesn’t relate to or want to spend time with, or if there are 22 exclamation marks on page one, it’s probably going to be a pass. This reaction can be very subjective but, arguably, a well-written book will stand out, hook and engage. The best way to improve your writing is by doing these three things: 1) read, 2) read, 3) read.

 

Storytelling

Boring = cut. Kill those darlings. Get feedback from knowledgeable beta readers, critique partners and/or a writing group before you query agents. Readers want to feel emotionally invested in your story. If they don’t, they’ll put the book down. So, how can you make them care? If I could answer that question, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post, I’d be lounging on my own private island, Mai Tai in hand.

 

Let’s look at a few examples of bestselling books that hook their readers from the first paragraphs*:

 

  • Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling and sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, ‘tis not down on any map I ever saw.

 

This is engaging. It’s offering questions I want to the answers to. What’s Henry Goose doing? Why’s he  digging with a spoon and wearing those clothes? Where are we? An inventiveness of voice and language is already shining through in a very obvious way. I want to keep reading. And this book only gets better. Here’s another example:

 

  • I looked up because of the laughter and kept looking because of the girls.

 

I noticed their hair first, long and uncombed. Then their jewelry catching the sun. The three of them were far enough away that I saw only the periphery of their features, but it didn’t matter—I knew they were different from everyone else in the park. Families milling in a vague line, waiting for sausages and burgers from the open grill.  Women in checked blouses scooting into their boyfriends’ sides, kids tossing eucalyptus buttons at the feral-looking chickens that overran the strip. These long-haired girls seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.

 

This creates a scene and also a story. The writing is confident and creative and it immediately feels fresh and original. Who are these girls? Where did they come from and what are they doing? They’re part of a Manson-like cult this 14-year-old narrator gets seduced by? I’m hooked. Here’s another:

 

  • I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation as I gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my hair in a ponytail and hope I look semi-presentable.

 

Would you have guessed that this book is a publishing phenomenon? Maybe it’s because this narrator is relatable. The writing is easy to read and has us wondering: who does she need to be presentable for? A hot billionaire with interesting preferences? This is a case of the premise hooking the reader as much as the very-accessible writing. One more:

 

  • Augie Odenkirk had a 1997 Datsun that still ran well in spite of high mileage, but gas was expensive, especially for a man with no job, and City Center was on the far side of town, so he decided to take the last bus of the night. He got off at twenty past eleven with his pack on his back and his rolled-up sleeping bag under one arm. He thought he would be glad of the down-filled bag by three A.M. The night was misty and chill.

 

Already there’s an ominous tone to this story. And there’s a lot of story here. We get a feel for who Augie is and what his life is like. In one short paragraph, we can already relate to his hardships. And there are questions we want answered: what’s he doing? From the title and genre we know what’s coming. But even without those clues, we get a feeling something bad is about to happen to Augie. So we keep reading.

 

All in all, agents want books with an exciting premise and with opening pages that make us drop everything to keep reading. We want to be drawn in by the language and emotionally engaged throughout. If you got one of those on offer, please query me 😊

 

My MSWL page is here: http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/mswl-post/julie-dinneen/

My submission details can be found here: www.d4eoliteraryagency.com/p/julie-dinneen.html

And here: www.juliedinneen.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/juliedinneen

 

*1) Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, 2) The Girls by Emma Cline, 3) Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, 4) Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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