Kate McKean is a literary agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. You can find her on Twitter @kate_mckean. She’s writing a YA novel, too, so she feels your pain.
Agents and editors aren’t (all) bitter, cranky monsters buried in paper, heartlessly rejecting your work. In fact, we’re quite the opposite (except the buried in paper part). We’re really nice people. We promise. And we really love authors and books. Here’s how you can help us fall in love with you:
We like it! Suits, ties, shiny shoes. Also formatted query letters. Something you might write to your boss. Or a teacher. Or your grandmother. That gif of a monkey riding a pig paired with rainbow comic sans font doesn’t make your query stand out. It makes you look like a whacko. Be presentable. You’re trying to make a good impression. Also, pick email and Twitter usernames that are suitable for work. Do you really want an agent sending an offer to your email@example.com account or responding to your tweet from @crazyagentstalker?
Writers with a web presence.
I get it. You’re writing a novel with pencil and paper, you refuse to do Twitter on principle, and you’re all about the power of the tactile printed word. Unfortunately, marketing is all about the power of the digital community. Having a few outlets where you interact with your actual readers, all of whom spend most of their waking hours online, is key. But be smart about it. The internet, like an elephant, never forgets.
A writer that knows she is not her book.
You poured your heart and soul into your book—we know. And we’re fully aware Aunt Edna said it was perfect, don’t change a word. That doesn’t save your book from needing revision, reimagination, or a complete overhaul. And that doesn’t mean you need a complete overhaul. A healthy sense of separation from your book, will help you grow and learn as a writer. You are not your book. Say it with me now: I am not my book.
Books that we get lost in.
Every agent and editor wants to be swept away by a book. We want to forget our deadlines and paper cuts and get sucked into a story, even if our bosses would prefer we remember those deadlines. Writers who understand pacing and plot (it’s ok, you can take a class), and who are aware of what the reader expects from a scene, not just what the writer wants to accomplish in a scene, have a much better chance of catching an agent or editor’s eye. Write for your reader, not at her.
Things we haven’t seen before.
Sure—there’s nothing new under the sun. Even expressions about clichés are cliché. We get that. But you’d be surprised how often the SAME EXACT plot and character mix shows up in our inboxes. I’m not just talking orphan wizard at a magical boarding school, or vampire/werewolf/human love triangle. Make sure what you’re working on hasn’t already been done in recent years by reading widely in your genre. When you know what’s out there, you’ll know if you’re original or not. And if you find your genius idea was published last year? By all means, rage, vent, eat. And then move on. Focus on what is unique about your story and amplify it.
Writers who can follow directions.
We know that it’s hard to find an agent or editor. We know we give you some hoops to jump through—some of us want attachments, some don’t, and some of us don’t accept queries at all. Respecting our submission guidelines and directions show that you respect our time and methods. We make those guidelines for a reason—so we can respond to your work as efficiently and quickly as we can. If you can’t be bothered to read our submission guidelines, why should we be bothered to read your book?
BOOKS THAT ARE GOING TO BE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLERS OMG WOO!
Obviously. We want books that are going to sell tons of copies and make all of us rich and famous and we’ll get movie deals and candy bars and a theme park where we can LIVE inside YOUR BOOK. Publishing books is a business after all. But keep in mind, that’s not all we want. We want books that will change the world and mean something to people. And that will sell a bagajillion copies and have thirteen spin-off series.
Writers who realize we’re just people, too.
Even if I did, in fact, have a magic wand (or an app) where I could bop you on the head and bestow the power of publishing upon you, like the fairy godagent I am, I would only be able to use it on special occasions. If you meet an editor or agent at a conference or chat with us online, remember we’re not magic. We’re just book-lovers like you—except with really cool jobs. We’re not withholding the publishing pixie dust from you on purpose.
A writer that can dust herself off and start again.
Not every book you write will be published. Many, maybe even most, first novels live forever in drawers. And that’s ok, because drawers love books, too. The good news is that agents and editors love to work with authors who understand that writing a book and selling a book are two different things. And if that first one doesn’t work, we want to see you get cracking on something else that WILL work. Don’t go all Havisham over it, bemoaning your first novels demise for the rest of your life. Write another BETTER book. Dedication to writing, not just one book, is a key.
Great books, period.
Whether it’s your first or your 100th, if you’re 17 or 71, if you went to a fancy school or just stole five minutes a day to write your masterpiece between working three jobs—publishing professionals want great books. Period. The writing trumps all. All the professional, detached, perspectivized, web-savviness will not make us pick-up a bad book. Your job as a writer starts here. Write something great. No pressure.