Have you *really* got what it takes to impress an agent?

Keshini Naidoo

This week’s guest post comes from Keshini Naidoo, a reader for Darley Anderson Literary Agency (who represent crime and thriller heavyweights such as Lee Child, John Connolly and Martina Cole). If you want to stand a chance of getting your baby read, you need to follow this invaluable advice from a lovely lady who really knows what she’s talking about…

Over to you, Keshini!

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In my role as Crime/Thriller reader for the Darley Anderson Literary Agency I get to read a lot of submissions. Which is the best part of my job! There’s nothing like discovering new talent in my in-box every morning. But, like most agencies, we receive hundreds of enquiries from debut writers every single week. With this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of tips, from covering letter to sample chapters, that will help your submission stand out from the crowd.

  • Do your research on the Agency/Agent – there’s no point sending us hard sci-fi or meta literary fiction that pays homage to Gravity’s Rainbow when our biggest sellers come from crime and commercial fiction. If you tell me that you’re proposing your commercial thriller novel because our agency represents Lee Child, then I know you have a good awareness of the market niche we fit into.

The majority of agencies have a website with detailed breakdowns of the staff, the writers they represent and what they are looking for. If you can address it directly to the person at the agency who will more than likely be looking at your submission, so much the better. I’ll definitely take notice if you address the covering letter to me – and if you use the generic Dear Sirs, I’m going to guess you haven’t looked at our Agency staff list, which is 99% female …

  • Keep your covering letter succinct, but do try and show some personality. I don’t need a full CV, but a little about why you write and what your influences are can really aid my reading of your chapters, particularly if you have a career that you utilise in your writing, such as working in the police force or social services. And please don’t say that you write fiction because you’re not impressed by the books you see in the bestseller charts!
  • While it can be helpful if you include any feedback about your novel from a writing tutor, or a professional editorial critique service, please do refrain from mentioning that your friends/second cousins twice removed/neighbour’s dog thinks that yours is the best book they’ve ever read and that it should be published.  My friends are very complimentary about my karaoke skills, but there’s no chance that Simon Cowell is going to give me a recording contract… If you belong to a writers’ group, have done a creative writing course/degree or have won/placed in a writing competition, do include that information as it demonstrates the seriousness of your writing ambitions.
  • It sounds obvious, but please read the guidelines of the Agency to see how large a sample of your novel you should send – we deliberately don’t ask for the entire novel but I still receive a large number of full manuscripts. And please don’t send me chapters 8, 22 and 67 as ‘these are the best representation of your writing style’ (read, the chapters you think are the best). It seems obvious, but I, like other agents and editors, start at the first chapter

While a good covering letter is crucial, once that’s perfected, how do you ensure that your chapters and synopsis sustain the readers’ engagement?

  • While there can often be a temptation to immediately include everything that makes your characters and setting unique, don’t introduce your main protagonist and then spend the next three pages on a potted history of their life up until that moment. I think of it like being introduced to someone at a party. If your character said ‘hello’, shook your hand then reeled off their life story – including how their parents met, how they got into their profession, the population and socio/economic breakdown of the town in which they live, a full physical description, marital status, and any vices – rather than trying to get to know them better, you’d be inclined to back away slowly, wearing a fixed grin. Think of your characters as being real. Not every main protagonist has to be a benign hero, but they do have to be engaging enough for the reader to want to invest time in their company. Tease out the information slowly whilst still engaging the reader – we have the whole book to get to know and invest ourselves in the world you have created.
  • Having said that, what I do want is for you to punch me in the face with your opening chapter (metaphorically speaking). A high concept, an innovative crime scene, a well-defined sense of place that transports me into the scene, a character that arrests the reader’s attention from the very first line – these are the things that will cause me to take notice. What I love is an opener that makes me gasp, immediately engages my attention and compels me to read further. I want to be forced to drop everything so that I can read your novel.

One aspect which many people find to be the hardest part of the submission is the one-page synopsis. How do you get all those delicious plot twists and original characterisation into a few hundred words? Please do adhere to agency guidelines on this, however. Your concept should be clean and punchy enough to get across successfully in one page, particularly in the crime/thriller genre. One page outlining the key plot points in clear language is helpful; a seventeen-page chapter-by-chapter breakdown is not.

  • A synopsis isn’t cover copy. You may think you’ll pique our interest by enigmatically describing what happens in your book with rhetorical questions and ellipses, but we need to know what happens and to whom, in clear English. If the landscape of your seemingly ‘normal’ police procedural suddenly happens to be attacked by an alien invasion, it would be advantageous to know that before I start to read…

And my last word on the subject of submissions has to be – don’t give up hope, and keep working on your writing skills. What doesn’t work for one agent may be exactly the right fit for another.

***

About Keshini

Keshini Naidoo is a former commissioning editor at Avon/HarperCollins, now working as a freelance editor/proof reader as well as Crime/Thriller reader at the Darley Anderson Literary Agency.

She can be reached on keshininaidoo@hotmail.com or @KeshiniNaidoo on Twitter and welcomes crime/thriller fiction submissions at crimethrillersmysteries@darleyanderson.com

4 thoughts on “Have you *really* got what it takes to impress an agent?

  1. Lots of food for thought, thanks for sharing. I have to say of the points I thought should be obvious to all writers, but clearly they’re not!

    • I can’t speak for Keshini, but I’m sure there are many, many people who don’t follow the basic steps! I’ve seen people sending out pitches on twitter to numerous agents, one after the other – I don’t think that’s the way to get noticed! 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  2. Hi Susi,
    Long time no speak. What a great little post. Very good of Keshini to take the time to write the article. Very good advice. I get so many self-published authors asking me on twitter to review their books. I think, for goodness sake, I don’t even know you and you’ve given me no reason to want to by not introducing yourself or your book properly. And getting a self-published book for free is not enticement either. Keep up the good work, talente Susi. xx

    • Thanks Susan! And hello 🙂 Yes, I think the problem is partly down to social media being so instant, people make the mistake of thinking they ‘know’ you when really they are complete strangers who’ve found a quick way to contact you! In the olden days of pen and ink, maybe people took a bit more time to consider what they were doing – then again, I’m sure there are plenty of awful paper submissions out there too!

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