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What I Learned From a Literary Agent


Karalyn Morris was one of two winners during Submittable’s Post-MFA video contest. As part of her prize, Karalyn consulted with literary agent Diana Finch about her novel-in-progress. We asked Karalyn to reflect on the experience and she kindly obliged.

To be totally honest, I wasn’t that excited for this consultation. I wasn’t sure what an agent who didn’t specialize in my genre (horror/surrealism) could really offer. But I was wrong. So, so wrong. The hour I spent on the phone with Diana Finch was absurdly, insanely, and instantly useful. I’ve whittled down her advice to the five most relevant (and hopefully) universal tidbits.

1. The Query Letter, What Is It?
Film still of smoke billowing from a hooded personI can tell you one thing, it’s not a movie trailer. A query is a few paragraphs of introduction between your story and a potential agent. It should hit all the major plot beats because an agent needs to know where the story’s going. But it’s also not a plot summary. It shouldn’t go on and on for ages. You’ve only got one page, after all. So if a movie trailer and a plot summary had an informative, but still intrigue-inducing baby, that would be the query letter. It’s close cousins with the jacket copy, but more informative.
2. Great, so How Do I Kill the Baby?
First off, killing babies isn’t nice, but if you insist. The best way to kill a query letter is to ignore an agent’s specific instructions. Agents are a picky bunch, and they want to make sure we wily writers can do things according to dictate. Also, if the first ten pages of your manuscript don’t align with your query letter, your book’s dead. Or rejected, anyway. My query letter promised a character driven horror novel about a monster that ate memories. Cool, right? Except I delivered something focused entirely on the external, physical plight of the main character: poor dude was tired and very overworked. Literally. That was my opening. As Diana put it, “It sounds like this book is about how he’s going to survive this job, not how he’s going to deal with the loss of memory.” Make sure the book you tease the agent with is the book the agent actually gets.
3. But I want my Baby to Live!
old baby doll in cradleSweet! You wouldn’t be human if you felt otherwise. Or at least, I’d hope not. So how do you make sure your query-letter-baby survives the slush pile and gets a chance to thrive? If you’re following all the agent’s submission instructions and have written a killer query, there’s one more thing you can do to give that baby a boost. Personalize it. I’m not kidding. Agents want to know why you’re sending your manuscript to them. Did you meet them at a conference? Did you see a call they’d put out for your genre? Do they represent your friend? Put this is in the query letter. These specific mentions could give you the tiny “oomph” you need. Personalizing the letter indicates that you’re interested in this particular agent for a reason, not spamming every agency in the city.
4. To Network or to Slush?

Network. Queries come from slush, clients come from networking. When you’re ready to start aggressively looking for agents, attend conferences, enter contests, and use social media to connect with other writers. And remember— you will get googled. So use social media and websites, but don’t be an ass. Nobody likes an ass.
5. Last but Not Least, Tiny Things to Increase Your Chances.
shadow of a hand in the fogCheck agent’s Twitters and websites to make sure you aren’t querying when they’re on vacation. Likewise, don’t query on holidays. And for good measure, don’t query on Tuesdays either. Diana got the most queries on Tuesdays, for whatever reason, so avoid that day. And while you’re at it, sprinkle some unicorn dust on your email, too. I hear that can’t hurt.
After the consult, I came away with this pretty simple realization: agents are people, too, and stories are their job. They’re not working against you. They want to find killer stories that they can sell. So listen to them, do what they ask, and hope for the best.

Note: The opinions expressed by guest bloggers at the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.
Photos by Rodion KutsaevTalgat Baizrahmanov, and tertia van rensburg courtesy of Unsplash.

K.L. Morris
K.L. Morris has been published in Shimmer, The Flexible Persona, and Body Parts: A Journal of Horror and Erotica. Her 2016 story “Light on Dimmed Bodies” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She received her M.F.A. from Lesley University. She spends most of her time writing, walking her dog, and ignoring her husband in order to write. When no one’s around, she writes inside of a tent with a large glass of wine. When people are around, she writes inside of a tent with a large glass of wine and the door zipped shut. She’s neither as broody nor as introspective as she presents herself. Connect with her on Twitter @KareMoreIs.

Karalyn Morris