What are agents looking for from a craft point of view?
Agents look for great writing and great story, pure and simple. It has to be both. When a unique idea comes along, it stands out. When a unique voice pops up in the inbox, it stands up and announces itself. When I open a submission and sense a writer has studied his/her craft and places me in story within the first lines, pages and chapter, I forget I am reading a story, and its the magic I look for. It makes me want to acquire yesterday and work with that writer.
The next concern is if a writer can carry story over the muddy middle. I look for a well-paced manuscript: active verbs, honed sentences with diction that pauses me at emotional hot points and enhances my focus in a masterful way—just really great sentences. I ask myself a few questions: do the words match the action of scenes? Do I sense emotional depth, original character, and worldview and does the piece have both layers and legs?
More than anything, I crave fresh, original, creative, interactive, and genuinely engaging stuff. What’s the personality and voice used in your cover letter? Are you presenting to an agent your personality and passion? Are you using comedic timing and pause well and asking they pay attention to the underpinnings of your words? I love that quote from William Zinsser, “You are the product that you sell” or the notion the late Ray Bradbury speaks to: writers learn the rules and how to break them well up until that day that the process of writing becomes “all in an of their fingers”—and they no longer think about it. If you have earned your MFA, you are well on your way. So, write. Write from that passionate place where story comes.
Princess and holiday books cause allergic reactions for me. I see them too often in my submissions bin. I prefer commercial, literary—that surprising, new material that makes me want to snatch it up. Material that presents that wow-factor and leaves me thinking: “I with I had thought of that!” moment is perfect.
When I first started out as an agent, I felt I could help any writer who was committed to his/her career, held an MFA, but that has since changed. It’s all about collaboration and a project I can genuinely connect to and believe in. As an agent, especially an editorial one, we spend time with the manuscripts, reading them and rereading. So, I am careful to take on projects and writers or writer-illustrators I feel connected to. I look for that writing professional who partners with an agent to further a career.
I’ve come to enjoy finding clients at events and workshops because I learn more about how they work, how they edit, and who they are. What I know is that when I take on a client who dedicated to improving craft and has a great manuscript in hand, that’s perfect. You should be savvy about what is out and current in the marketplace—enough to know when a manuscript feels like it is written from a mentor text or includes lines so similar to established text that it feels cliché.
Do I need to have a full draft of my novel?
Yes. You should have a full draft of your novel to submit. We are looking for that next great book. It’s nice to have other manuscripts in the works as well, ideally ready, but one great book is what we look for. I personally enjoy working with writers who work in more than one category, a writer who enjoys nonfiction as well as fiction, or is a writer and also an illustrator, or a picture book writer who also writes YA.
Your novel should be through a number of revisions, for it is usually in the 8th or 56th that we reach that depth needed to skyrocket our manuscript toward success. I was working on a manuscript the other day, or just looking for where I was at in my own revisions, and I found a draft marked 222. I laughed. I remember how I felt at the time I saved it like that. Some stories come to us and the muse opens up and others find there way through the labyrinth of our souls, but they find their way. Our job is to nurture it onto the page. And with pluck and a little luck and butt-in-chair (BIC), we, ever onward, reach our goals. It’s what writers do. What you need to know is that with MFA in hand, you are on that journey, so enjoy it, celebrate it, and cherish the small successes as you move forward.
What are some tips about writing a cover letter?
My biggest tips are two-fold: keep it short and be yourself. We get so many submissions, so those that share their personality in the cover page stand out. I enjoy it when the cover letter matches the tone of the manuscript.
One of my favorite submissions was from an author-illustrator who mentioned his work in a three parts; he works as an art director, cut his teeth at DC comics, and cries at most Tom Hank movies. This is a breathing person who feels real and friendly. He’s been fabulous to work with and we are currently contracting his fourth book, a two-book deal with more in the works. Another great submission came from a writer who shared her cover letter in her main character’s point of view and voice. It was really engaging. And so was the work that followed.
I’ve been on enough editor-agent panels now to know that when I suggest to keep these short, it’s the best advice I can give you. A lot of us feel this way. When I see a long, long cover letter, I get hives and think “I’ll read that one later” and may not. It’s professional to by concise and clear. Short means it fits on my computer screen without scrolling down. Keep it simple, direct, and memorable.
What matters most about your submission? Your manuscript. For your cover letter, spend the most time honing that pitch for your manuscript. Write that in a way that makes me crave your read and you will be in great shape. I often read this pitch and move right to reading the manuscript. Really. When my in bin fills fast and furious like a wild thing, it’s a must. Some twenty to one hundred submissions a day is normal life as an agent and really why we are sometimes slow responding. If I write an article, at times that number can reach 500-600 in a month.
When I’ve been the submission agent following an online event, I’ve received this number from just one group—all picture books. When I attend conferences, critiques get added to this reading. When I want to send out clients’ manuscript, important reading and editing gets added to this reading. So do realize that when we are slow to respond, we are diligently and constantly working to catch up.
So my other piece of advice is to take the time to read and adhere to the specific guidelines for each agent you send your work to. When I receive submissions written to the agent they sent to just prior to me (Happens a lot just prior to events I am scheduled to attend—I think writers send to the agents that will be there and simply forget to change the name) or to “Dear agent” (really? Didn’t bother to look my name up) or Mr. Sadler (did I really have a sex change overnight? Hmm), I know this writer has not taken the time to consider me as a professional or present him/herself as a professional.
Will my agent work on revising something with me?
Agents are the new editors in many ways. We look for work that is so ready to send that it already sings. It’s nice when we only have a few things to consider like setting or depth of characterization, or chapter breaks and shifts, or subplots or threads that need more attention. In the case of picture books, a lot of time can be spent on crafting fresh and thinking about what will elevate a piece in the marketplace.
I’ve recently launched KIDLIT COLLEGE, which hosts great webinar events with editors and agents, who also do critiques. In a recent event, Allison Moore talked about Big Story Ideas and shared how to position your work to complete in the marketplace and stand out. This past weekend, Ann Whitford Paul joined Jill Corcoran to talk about picture book craft. Ann talked about the ABCs of writing picture books, which was fabulous and gave detailed list of what to do, and literary agent extraordinaire, Jill Corcoran joined her to talk about what agents look for.
Find these kind of opportunities to get your work critiqued and reviewed by editor and agents. From our first webinar alone three manuscripts out of 20-ish where requested by the critiquing editor, so it’s a great move.
I often say that while we don’t write to the market, per se, we do need our work to fit into a market category. It’s a different ballgame to craft a story than to craft a story that will sell. I know a book is one I can take on when I can instantly think of three editors I can share it with.
Agents work on revisions, but an editorial agent definitely does, and this is all a process. I now use Google hangouts to work with clients because it saves a lot of back and forth emailing. We read and mark up and then chat about the piece and what needs to happen to make it ready to send out.
Voice. Original idea. Different. Captivating. And Firsts. The first line, paragraph, pages and chapters of your novel need to be the best you’re capable of. We need character, setting, plot hints and voice all at once. How important is this? Huge. In the first week of my MG/YA pacing course, I talk about the importance of firsts. I also recently did a Writer’s Digest Webinar with Leslie Shumate, assistant editor at Little Brown Books for Young readers, and she will also be talking about first pages and we have Leslie joining us at KidLit College in October: “Making First Impressions”—and she definitely knows what she is talking about.
I believe in one simple truth: A writer who hones his/her craft will earn the book deal. There are no short cuts. A manuscript has to be top quality. This was the whole reason I started KIDLIT COLLEGE, and asked presenters to talk about craft. Ariel Richardson, assistant editor at Chronicle, will be talking about “What Makes Nonfiction Great” in September, and Yolanda Scott, executive director at Charlesbridge, will talk about “The Whole Book Approach to writing picture books in November. We also have an author-agent team talking about The author-agent relationship in a few short weeks, titled, “I’ve Got Your Back,” which pretty much sums up a great team approach to agenting.
If you could give one tip to new authors, what would it be?
Write the best manuscript, that manuscript only you can write, and write it strong in your voice and style and trust in the journey—it’s a good one.
Thanks Jodell for all the great advice!
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*Jodell Sadler is the founding agent and owner of Sadler Children’s Literary and KidLit College. She also teaches and presents on "pacing a story strong" nationwide.