An Introduction to Literary Agents

Photo credit Yannick Pulver via Unsplash

Who needs a literary agent?

Most large, well-known publishers of full-length works do not accept “unsolicited” submissions, which means manuscript submissions directly from an author. To get your foot in the door at this type of publisher, you’ll need a literary agent.

Mid-size, academic, boutique, and small publishers vary in terms of whether they will look at un-agented submissions. Your best bet is to check the submission guidelines on the publisher’s website. If the publisher doesn’t publicly share submission guidelines, that can be a sign that they are only open to literary agents. Note that some publishers have designated “open periods,” while requiring an agent for the rest of the year. Others may require an agent except for certain contest-related submissions.

If you would like to pursue self-publishing, you will not need a literary agent.

If your goal is to publish something like a short story, poem, or essay in a literary journal, you will not, apart from a few exceptions, need a literary agent.

What do literary agents do?

Put simply, a literary agent tries to sell their client’s book to a publisher. This means signing projects the agent thinks will sell, working with the author to get the manuscript into shape, submitting the manuscript to editors at publishing houses, and (fingers crossed!) negotiating a deal.

Agents get paid on commission, which explains why they are looking for highly commercial projects.

After the publishing deal is signed, an agent’s job is not finished. Going forward, an agent will be involved with handling commission and royalty payments and negotiating foreign and subsidiary rights. A literary agent also provides guidance to their authors about the publishing industry, future projects, author brand, social media, career trajectory, and more.

How do you get a literary agent?

It’s notoriously challenging to get a literary agent. I’m planning a future blog post with some tips that may help. Stay tuned…

Shout-Out to Public Libraries

About a month ago, I was asked by Ashley Hasty to contribute to her feature “25 Authors & Their Favorite Libraries.” Ever since, I’ve been thinking about the role libraries play in our communities.

Most historians say the first public library in the U.S. was established in the early 1700s at the Boston Old State House. The first free public library supported by tax revenue was built in 1833 in Peterborough, New Hampshire. You may have heard about Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic support of libraries; thanks to his funding, some 2509 libraries were built in the U.S. between 1883-1929. Check out The Personal Librarian for a historical novel about Belle da Costa Greene, who was J.P. Morgan’s librarian.

Libraries break down boundaries, providing resources to all members of our community. Libraries are judgment-free zones where exploration is encouraged and you can learn more about your own unique interests, whatever they might be.

Do you have a favorite library memory? Growing up in Hendersonville, I spent many a happy hour at the Henderson County Public Library. My elementary school library boasted a carpeted reading fort, which I wish was still available as it would provide a nice escape some days…

On business trips to New York, I always try to squeeze in a visit to the New York Public Library, especially the children’s room where the original Winnie-the-Pooh lives.

Now my local library is the Northeast Regional Library in Wake County. I remember when the building was under construction and I would drive by (somewhat impatiently!) to check on its progress. It’s such a joy to wander through the lovely space, filled with natural light and books of every description. When the library re-opened after quarantine, a security guard would ask each patron if they had recently experienced Covid symptoms. One day I was distracted by work emails and cheerfully answered “No, thank you,” as though he was offering the symptoms to me. That was embarrassing…

Some lucky afternoons at this library branch, from the rear windows you may spot frolicking groundhogs in the natural area out back. I have named one Dewey, after the Dewey Decimal System. He’s my favorite.

Photo courtesy of Abigail Lynn, Unsplash

5 Potential Pitfalls with Story Beginnings

These days, with so much competition for potential readers’ attention, story beginnings are more critical than ever. A writer needs to grab a reader’s interest—quickly. Although this is a subjective business and there’s no “right” or “wrong” approach, I’d like to flag these potential pitfalls for your consideration.

  1. Confusion

As writers, we have spent a great deal of time with our manuscript, but readers are coming to it with fresh eyes. When someone don’t know our characters, their relationships, or how they operate in the story world, it’s easy to become confused. The best beginnings are clear about where we are and what is happening, while keeping us in the scene. To avoid reader confusion, be mindful about:

  • introducing too many characters in the first few paragraphs of a story or pages of a novel;
  • beginning with extensive dialogue without grounding the reader in the scene; or
  • pressing “pause” on the action to explain things to the reader, which interrupts the story flow.

2. Introspection

I’m not saying it can’t be done, but beginning with a character alone can be challenging. If a story begins with a character by himself or herself, they have no one with whom to interact and might instead spend their time thinking. The reader is likely to grow impatient for something to happen. Often a story beginning will be more successful at grabbing a reader’s attention if you give the character someone to talk to. This provides an opportunity to show what the character is like and introduce tension.

3. Heavy-Handedness

In many novels considered to be classics, the opening line makes a pronouncement about the world or how life works. Dickens and Tolstoy do this often. You are certainly welcome to use this approach in contemporary fiction, but it might strike some readers (this one included) as preachy.

4. Backstory

A publisher and editor whom I admire (hi Kevin!) calls this “throat-clearing.”  The beginning of your story is valuable real estate. Don’t spend it preparing to tell the story. Start the actual story. This means, where you can, avoiding backstory, setting things in motion as soon as possible, and staying in scene.

5. Cliché

Readers want to feel like your story is one they haven’t read before. Consider whether your opening might come across as overly familiar, such as a character waking up or looking in the mirror. Similarly, a dream sequence might not be the best approach to draw a reader in.

Of course, you can pull any number of books off your shelves that break these “rules.” As long as you’re intentional about your approach, you can craft a story beginning that works.

When Writing Plans Get Derailed

My husband had a big birthday this week. For months, we’d planned a vacation to celebrate. With three glorious days off work, my husband and son would golf and I would write. The anticipation built. As I crossed items off my legal job to-do list, I looked forward to the break. I would make so much writing progress during this getaway.

When my throat began to feel scratchy, I told myself it was nothing. Perhaps I’d been drinking too much sparkling water. But then my head–well, it seemed to weigh a thousand pounds. How had I ever held it up? My ears ached and popped. Things might improve overnight, I decided. But the next morning, I could barely lift my head from the pillow.

Thankfully, my husband and son stayed healthy. Off they went to golf in sunny California. I could write from home, of course. I didn’t need a vacation. But between my pounding head and disorienting fever, it turned out that I was utterly unable to focus.

Guess how many words I wrote this week? Zero.

It’s been a letdown, especially since I had All These Grand Writing Plans.

I’m sure you know the feeling. Life often gets in the way of our writing. As I emerge from the sickly haze back into the brightness of health, I’m struck by two things. First, in my everyday rushing around, I take much for granted. What a joy it is to be able to breathe, to have the energy for an afternoon walk.

And second, my writing project didn’t disappear during my absence. What a welcoming reassurance to realize that I haven’t lost my chance.

I can’t get this week back. But now I have the luxury of a decision: spend another day berating myself for the lack of progress, or open the file and get back to writing.

5 Ingredients for a Love Story

Welcome to the month of candy hearts and rom-coms. Whether you celebrate Valentine’s Day or not, this seems like a good time to explore what makes a compelling love story.

When I say “love story,” I mean a slightly larger category than “romance.” What I have in mind is stories about love of all kinds—a child, friend, lover, or even a pet.

(1) Flawed protagonist meets a counterpart.

Stories are mostly about transformation. In a love story, the protagonist usually has an obvious gap or flaw, something they’re missing or struggling with. Meeting a counterpart will suggest to the reader how the two might complete each other. In Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, the main character struggles with loneliness until she meets her first friend: a dog.

(2) The relationship encounters a complication.

It’s not going to be a very compelling story if everything goes smoothly, is it? A complication can be an illness or war or natural disaster. In romances, a complication often arrives in the form of a love triangle.

(3) They break up, separate, or argue.

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy stumbles a bit when he tries to confess his love. Essentially, he tells Elizabeth Bennett that, against his better judgment, he will make her dreams come true by accepting her as his wife. Elizabeth hasn’t learned her lesson yet either and attacks not only his personality but also his social class, assuring him he would be the last man she would ever love.

(4) One or both does something to profess their love.

The characters are beginning to see the error of their ways. But to turn things around, sometimes a big gesture is needed.

For example, in Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything, Maddy buys a plane ticket for New York to find Olly. Sometimes proof of love involves a personal sacrifice. Picture the harried business woman leaving an important meeting to attend her daughter’s ballet performance.

(5) Look at us now.

The takeaway of many love stories is this: we are different people after spending time together. Often, in happier love stories, the protagonist and his/her counterpart reunite—and they do so in a way that reveals how they’ve transformed over the course of the story. Even when they don’t stay together in a happily ever after, such as in (spoiler alert) John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, they’ve been changed for the better.

For more info, check out:

Save the Cat: “Buddy Love”

Checking In

We’re now a few weeks into the new year and it’s a good time to check in on those writing goals or resolutions. I don’t know about you, but I like having a checklist and it can feel frustrating if I’m not completing tasks as quickly or efficiently as I would like. This frustration—spoiler alert—doesn’t fuel improved productivity; instead, it breeds more negativity. I’ll never accomplish what I’ve set out to. I’m a failure.

There are many different personality types, of course, and it makes sense to take stock of your personal preferences and your typical trajectory. I’ve found it helpful to transform negative self-talk into positive affirmation. Perhaps the short story I’m working on hasn’t been accepted yet. I can tell myself that I’m not a good story writer. That’s a heavy burden to carry the next time I approach the blank page.

Consider switching up the narrative. For days I’ve been getting up before sunrise to revise that short story. My effort is worth a little pat on the shoulder, isn’t it? Doesn’t that positivity, a modest dose of self-affirmation, make it more likely that I’ll feel up to trying again tomorrow?

Much of life is out of our control. Our writing practice can get de-railed by job frustrations, a loved one in the hospital, house repairs, you name it. Giving ourselves grace can keep us coming back to the page. Let’s take this moment to re-assess where we are with our writing goals. And let’s affirm what we are doing right.