Tag Archives: getting a literary agent

Getting Noticed In a World Flooded With Voices

Something I find interesting is how many times I hear agents and editors talking about wanting a story that is unique. They’re not looking for the same old same old. They want something new, the next big thing.

This is intriguing because of how often I see the opposite being true. I’m sure you know at least one book that seems to be the carbon copy of another book, or movie, or TV show, or newspaper article…you get what I’m saying. Off the top of my head, both Obsidian and Fifty Shades of Grey appear to be rip offs of Twilight. Think of all the books that followed The Hunger Games: Divergent, Matched, The Maze Runner, Red Queen, and more. Heck, a number of people even say that The Hunger Games was a rip off of Battle Royale.3876549126_2584d97157_z

However, despite the above examples, writers still need to be individuals. The market is over-saturated with books just like other books, and if you are trying to mimic another book solely in the hopes of also being a bestseller, then your character’s voice won’t be authentic.

Also, in a world inundated with people who all believe that they can be bestselling authors, you need to stand out, and be different in a good way. (Don’t query agents saying that your novel is the next bestseller. Don’t tell agents that God told you to query them. Don’t mass query agents with the salutation of “To whom it may concern.” Hint: agents actively look for reasons not to read your query, writing sample, etc. They have too much to do and too little time to deal with all the work they already have.)

How do you stand out among the myriad of voices?

I’d like to say that if you write an extraordinary novel and query letter, you’ll get published. But that’s not always, or even usually, the case. Think of all the books you’ve read where you can’t understand why they were published, or how many times you’ve gotten a positive query letter rejection. (Two examples from me are (1) that my query was fantastically written, but that the agent is currently not taking on any more YA authors, and (2) the agent enjoyed my novel, but my book was too contemporary for the present market (funnily enough, a year later, John Green became extraordinarily popular with his novel The Fault in Our Stars, and the YA market was flooded with books about overly intelligent kids with cancer.))

Most times an agent selects a novel based on how well that agent clicks with the book. Using John Green as an example again, I am not a fan of his writing style, however my cousin and all her friends were aghast when they discovered I didn’t read his novels. Whether you like something is completely subjective, no matter how much you may pretend you’re being utterly objective.

So, what can you do?

  1. Focus on your voice. It can be easy to get lost in studying other authors’ works, especially if they sold well. But this won’t help you in the long run, because you need to develop your voice. If you can’t recognize your writing style, it will show in your writing.
  2. Allow others to help you. Look for contacts within the writing community. You never know if a friend of a friend is the brother of a top-tier literary agent. Also, let others read your writing. Let them give you feedback. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, a favor, or to offer to take your professor out to dinner if she critiques your writing past what was required for class.
  3. Get involved in the community. Similar to above, surround yourself with people who know the writing world. You’ll learn what to do much faster if you’re around people who already know what to do.
  4. Do the writing. This is a lot easier said than done. After having spent years in the writing community, even getting a MA in Writing, I know how much work crafting a story is. However, I know several people who casually say they’re going to write a novel and get it published. It’s difficult for me to not roll my eyes because they are either not serious about writing anything, have no clue what goes into writing, or are disillusioned about the writing world. (It astonishes me how many people don’t realize how much work goes into completing a well-written novel.)

One of the biggest aspects of writing to consider, and this may be part of the reason why so many poorly written novels not only get published but become best sellers, is that readers are able to empathize with the characters. A professor once told me that if you don’t experience any emotions while writing, then readers won’t when reading your work.

Lastly, results take time. Often in the literary world, results take years. Those stories you hear about how a writer got an agent after one week of querying or how a writer got a six-figure deal on a first novel are heard about for a reason. They rarely happen. So, be patient, work hard, develop your individual voice, and don’t give up.

How do you try to get your work noticed?

(Photo courtesy of Amy West.)

Getting a Leg Up: Improving Your Chances of Getting Published

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I’m always searching for ways to improve my chances of getting published. No matter what avenue you pursue getting published is a challenge. Many times it seems more about luck than talent or perseverance, though without staying power the chances of getting published are reduced to zero.

I’ve joined a critique group, taken creative writing classes, read several creative writing books, analyzed commercially successful novels, and am now working toward a Masters in Fiction Writing. All of this done in an effort to polish my work into a piece of writing an agent and then an editor will take on.

wanted lit agentBut even as I do all of this I know my chances are still slim. And before I go off on a bunny trail and start talking about how many poorly written novels end up being bestsellers (readability is one of the most important aspects of successful commercial fiction, not literary finesse), I would love to know what others are doing to improve their chances of getting published.

Currently, there’s the debate of whether or not to pursue an MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) in creative writing. Thousands of people apply each year to get into this program, while each year thousands snub the program. Real fast: an MFA is a terminal graduate degree, usually taking two to three years to complete, that offers students the opportunity to focus on their writing and grow as writers. Students participate in traditional style classes and workshops, where they read and critique other students’ work and where their work is read and critiqued.

One of the best attributes of the MFA is the opportunity to have your work read and critiqued. The program provides you with a community of writers that will give honest and thorough feedback on your writing. Sometimes when you have family or friends read your work, they’ll want to be encouraging, and so will be afraid of truly critiquing your novel. When you’re in a workshop setting, that is not the case. You will get straightforward and truthful feedback, whether you want to hear it or not.

An MFA program also teaches you to read with a critical eye. As I’ve delved deeper into the literary world, I’ve noticed my reading style changing. Whereas I used to read solely for pleasure, now I automatically dissect technique and literary elements within any work of fiction I read. On one hand this is great because I come away with a better understanding of the work I just read. On the other hand, I don’t enjoy books as much as I used to because I can better pick out the inconsistencies, plot holes, flat characters, etc. Though in order to improve as a writer, you have to learn what to avoid when writing, and one of the best ways to learn that is to become a critical reader.

As with all programs, there are downsides to the MFA. One, there’s the cost. Very few programs cover expenses. Most will cost students anywhere from $30,000 to $65,000. That’s a lot of money for a degree that provides little opportunity in the professional world!

There are no guarantees that you’ll get published. You’ll spend thousands of dollars and years of your life focusing on improving your work, and nothing may come of it. One of the most common pieces of advice writers hear is to not quit their day job.

Also, an MFA tends to be literary. If your focus is commercial, it’ll be challenging to get accepted into such a program. The literary world tends to snub the commercial world, while the commercial world doesn’t care all that much for the literary one. As stated earlier, one of the biggest proponents of having a commercially successful novel is readability. I’ve read many novels where the characters are two-dimensional and stereotypical, where the plot is nothing new, and where the writing is average at best, but I’ve come away liking the books because of their readability. (Literary fiction usually doesn’t promote readability to the extent of well-crafted writing.)writer

In the end, what you choose to do to improve your writing will be based on personal preferences, what you can afford, and what other successful writers in your genre have done.

I’m happy with my decision to work toward a Masters in Fiction Writing part time (this is different from an MFA) because it gave me a group of writers and professors – all published – who provide me with feedback for my work and gave me a group of people who understand what it’s like to pursue writing seriously and who know how difficult it is to be successful in the literary world.

No matter what it’s important to read and read widely. Reading books in your genre is vital, but so is reading books outside your genre. Join a critique group, and in doing so be open to (1) putting in the work and (2) being open to criticism. (I recently learned of a critique group where everyone wants their work read and critiqued, but very few want to read and critique anyone else’s work. Reciprocate people!) And when your novel is finished, revise, revise, revise. If you’re not great at editing, consider hiring a professional editor (if you have the funds to do so). Attend writer’s conferences. Immerse yourself in the literary world.

A great article I’ve read recently about the MFA and whether it will give you a leg up in the publishing world is “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.” It’s worth a look.

How do you improve your chances of getting published? What’s your stance on the MFA?

(Photos courtesy of The BookBaby Blog, The Graduate21, i am CAM Jr!)