Want Agents to Read Your Novel? Do This First

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Literary agent reading book

Today’s article is written by Suzannah Windsor Freeman, founding editor.

With the new year here, many of us have manuscripts we’re itching to get out there into the world of submissions.

Perhaps, over the holidays, you polished off the book you wrote during NaNoWriMo, and now you want to get it in front of an agent. Or maybe your goal for 2012 was to write a novel, and your goal for 2013 is to find representation for it.

If you’ve been writing for many years, this might be the best course of action. But, if you’re a new-ish writer—maybe this is your very first novel—you could be forgetting a very important ingredient in this write book + submit book = find agent equation.

Let’s take a look at a successful novelist who once found herself where you might be at the moment.

A Great Manuscript Isn’t the Only Factor

The best thing you can do to increase your chance of being picked up by a literary agent is to write one truly awesome book. But, there are many other factors involved in whether or not your novel gets the attention it deserves.

Over at Writer Unboxed, author Eleanor Brown (The Weird Sisters), tells the story of how she struggled to have her first novel manuscript even read by agents, because she had no prior publications to her name. There was nothing to distinguish this highly talented writer’s query letter from the hoards of others crowding agents’ inboxes.

So, she stepped back from her novel and decided to focus on shorter pieces for a while. Once she had a portfolio of credits behind her, Eleanor’s query letter began to catch a few eyes. In the end, she found the perfect agent to represent her work. Once published by Penguin, The Weird Sisters hit the New York Times Bestseller list.

Eleanor says:

“[...] [N]ot only will writing shorter work help give your writing focus and clarity, it will give you the list of publication credits you need to effectively query agents to get your magnum opus published.”

In my own experience, taking a couple of years to focus on short fiction has made me recognize just how unskilled my writing was, when I was completely focused on writing a novel to the exclusion of everything else. I do intend to get back to book-length fiction at some point, but when I do, agents will be more likely to see me as a serious and skilled writer because of my previous publishing history.

Be Seen as a Serious Writer This Year

Building a portfolio of your work is important. Not only is it important for you in terms of enhancing your credibility as a writer, it’s also important to help boost your confidence and to force you to keep growing as you make your way toward larger goals.

Shorter pieces of writing can include:

  • Micro fiction/flash fiction/short fiction/novellas
  • Poetry/prose poetry
  • Creative nonfiction/personal essays
  • Nonfiction articles/guest posts

Here’s a challenge for you. Why not commit yourself to doubling your previous writing credits this year?

That may sound easy, but I’m not talking abou getting yourself published in the quickest, easiest places possible. Anyone can get something published somewhere, so be a little choosy about where you submit your work.

If you have no previous publishing credits, aim to write and publish one piece this year, at a reputable print or online journal, magazine, or newspaper. (Yes, I’m aware that zero doubled is still zero, but humour me).

If you have two, go for four. Five? Aim for 10!

And if you have 10, think about whether you want to continue writing shorter pieces, or whether you’re ready to try—or get back into—longer forms.

But, not everyone wants or needs to write a novel, so don’t feel obliged. The short form can be just as successful and fulfilling, depending on the writer.

Expand Your Writing Portfolio

Building a portfolio doesn’t have to take you years on end. Here are some tips for scoring more credits in less time:

  • Write shorter pieces. Instead of always writing short stories of about 3000 words, aim to write three flash fiction pieces of about 1000 words, and send them to different journals.
  • Target journals with quick response times. Look for journals that respond to submissions in eight weeks or less, but also choose ones that are still competitive and look good in your portfolio.
  • Try prose poems. For those who generally dislike poetry, the prose poem [defined by Encyclopaedia Britannica as "a work in prose that has some of the technical or literary qualities of a poem (such as regular rhythm, definitely patterned structure, or emotional or imaginative heightening) but that is set on a page as prose"] could be the antidote.
  • Target audio journals for recordings of previously published fiction. Not all journals publish your work in print. Audio recordings are a great way to get yourself a second credit without writing another word.
  • Target journals and anthologies that accept reprints for previously published fiction. There aren’t many journals that accept reprints, but there are a few out there you can try. Anthologies, however, are usually open to reprints, and there are always calls for submissions available on the Internet.
  • Don’t keep submitting to the same journal once you’ve been published there. What looks better: having five stories published in the same magazine, or five stories published in five different ones? By publishing your stories in different places, you’re effectively proving that multiple editors are convinced of your talent.
  • Try to send out a submission once each week. Maybe you won’t have a new piece to submit each week, but re-submitting rejected pieces continuously means you’ll always have something out there, and always have the chance of an acceptance.

Whatever you do, don’t give up–there are thousands of places to publish your work. And, once you have at least one piece published, getting others published does become slightly easier.

Consider the Power of Three

Numbers can be powerful, and perhaps the most powerful number is three.

I’ve always been of the opinion that three top-notch publishing credits is all you need—although you’ll probably amass more than three credits in your quest to achieve them. Consider the difference between the following query samples:

My short fiction has appeared in Fiddlywords, Juicy Literature, Aspiring Authorz, Journey to the Center of Your Mind, Papercuts, Silly Stories, Frightening Tales, and others.

versus…

My short fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, One Story, and others.

Being published in small, not very well-known journals  (those titles were entirely made up, by the way, although they might actually exist) is still great, but given the choice between including a laundry list of credits at lesser-known journals, or listing just three at highly esteemed magazines, I think you know which is more likely to catch eyes.

Also, did you catch the ‘and others’ bit? Maybe you’ve been published in just three well-known journals, but also have smaller credits. Will the agent know that those ‘others’ aren’t published in equally impressive journals? They may suspect, but that little phrase can add a bit of mystery to your query. And, by keeping your list short but powerful, you’ll look more confident and less like you’re trying hard to look experienced.

Of course, if you’re writing a horror novel, you’re going to want to list credits from the top horror journals out there. If you’re writing science fiction, you’ll want to target the big names within that genre. Think about what type of agent you’re after, what type of novel you want to write (or have written), and what type of short credits are going to be most impressive.

Remember There Are Always Exceptions

I must mention this. Because if I don’t, someone else is sure to.

There are always exceptions.

Novelists do get picked out of the slush pile with no previous experience. Or they connect with an agent at a writing conference  or workshop, and have their manuscript requested that way.

Not everyone must write short fiction or publish in journals before they are able to find representation. Former literary agent Nathan Bransford once said:

“If you don’t have publishing credits: do not worry. They’re not necessary. The ranks of people who have been published without a single credit to their name are legion.”

That could be you.

But, if you find yourself in a place, like Eleanor Brown did, where no agent will give your amazing manuscript a second glance, then building a portfolio of shorter writing credits may be just the thing you need. (Or, you might decide to just skip the traditional system and self-publish, which is a viable option these days.)

More writing, more experience, and more credibility certainly can’t hurt, no matter where you want to end up.

Do you see yourself as strictly a novelist, or do you also focus on shorter pieces? How do you feel the short form has helped move you closer to your larger-scale goals?

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