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UK literary agent tips for new writers

Winchester Writers' ConferenceFrom my Masterclass Courses, Q&A panels and one-to-one sessions at the Winchester Writers’ Conference this year, I’ve compiled some tips for new writers.  These should hopefully help you pitch your work successfully and capture an agent’s attention!

There are key things to think about whilst preparing a submission letter.  I personally receive between 20 and 50 submissions from new writers each day, but the strong ones still really stand out.  Here are some things to think about whilst preparing your submission before sending to agents.

  • Read the blurbs on the back covers of books in the area that you are writing.  Are they compelling?  Do they draw you in?  Do they make you want to open the book?  Your pitch needs to be an enticing blurb that ‘sells’ your story.  The aim of the blurb is to grab a reader’s attention and to make them want to read your book.  This should be part of your covering letter, not your synopsis.
  • To practice, write the blurb for the last book you read and see how it compares to the blurb on the back cover of the book.
  • Practice pitching your favourite books in one line too – we naturally do this when recommending books to friends. Now try pitching your own book in one line.  Imagine you only have enough words for a tweet.  This should help you get to the core of your story. Word of mouth is the greatest publicity tool for books when they hit the market, so it’s important that people can describe your book easily.  You should be able to sum your book up in this way, for instance the following pitch used for THE GUARDIAN ANGEL’S JOURNAL by Carolyn Jess Cooke:

‘When a woman dies at forty years old she is sent back to earth as a guardian angel to herself and is forced to re-experience and record her biggest mistakes and fiercest regrets from the beginning of her life to her untimely death – she is told she must not change any of her actions, but should simply learn from them.’

You can shorten this to: ‘What would you change if you could live your life again?’

  • Read the first chapter of bestselling books in the area you are writing.  Do they draw you in?  Do you like the characters? Are you excited to read more?  This is how an agent will approach your work.  This is also how a publisher will approach a book they receive from an agent.  It is very important that these chapters hook the reader in.
  • Choose an eye-catching title.  Test it out on your friends and family.  I want a title that grips me before I start reading the manuscript.  Think about your title in a bookstore. What is going to get the most attention?  Bestsellers tend to have really strong titles for instance ROOM, ONE DAY, BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, THE HELP, GONE GIRL, THE LOVELY BONES, THE HUNGER GAMES, ME BEFORE YOU.  Some titles only make sense once you’re fully immersed in the book but really strong titles should say something before you’ve turned the pages.

Room by Emma DonoghueGone Girl by Gillian FlynnMe Before You by Jojo MoyesBefore I go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

  • I receive so many submissions where the blurb and the synopsis merge into one.  The blurb should ‘sell’ your story and should be incorporated into your covering letter/introductory email as the pitch.  The synopsis ‘tells’ your story and it should be a separate document. It should be in chronological order telling the events as they happen.  Who, what, where, when why?  Don’t include backstory as it would make it too long.
  • I want to see that a writer has researched the market and has an idea of the potential readership. Where do you think your book would sit on the shelves in a bookshop?  Who will enjoy your book?  For instance, will it appeal to readers of Maggie O’Farrell and Sarah Winman, or Lee Child and Harlan Coben?  It is always helpful if you try and position your novel because an editor has to do this when they take it to acquisitions to get the support of their sales team.  Please don’t say are ‘the next’ Dan Brown, or the equivalent though!
  • Once you have pitched your work in your covering letter/introductory email, you should mention your experience and achievements, but these must be relevant to the work you are submitting.  Include any publications, for instance short stories, self-published or traditionally published fiction or non-fiction, features or competitions you have won.   I personally don’t mind if you haven’t had anything published, but it would be nice to know if you attend a writing group, have been to writing festivals or have a degree in Creative writing. I just want to see that you are serious about your writing career.  It’s a long-term business and most authors are only successful once they have had four or five books published.
  • When you are ready to find an agent, subscribe to the The Bookseller for a short period.  Most publishing professionals read this trade magazine for industry news.  Top deals are announced, and any acquisition news usually includes a really compelling pitch about the book that has been sold.  It will also give you an idea of what is popular in terms of fiction and non-fiction as publishers are usually ahead of the market.
  • Follow agents on Twitter, subscribe to their blogs, and research them on the web – you need to be submitting to agents who are actively seeking new writers.  You should also feel as if yFestival-logoou could be friends with your agent.
  • Join writing organisations specific to the area you are writing in, for instance the SCBWI for children’s fiction or the RNA for women’s fiction.  Attend festivals such as the crime festival in Harrogate, the York Festival of Writing and the Winchester Writers’ Conference, where you can meet agents and get advice from successful authors.SCBWI
  • The Writers and Artists Yearbook is updated annually and has the contact details of all the literary agencies in the UK.  There is also the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for children’s fiction and illustrators.

Old Peculiar Crime Festival

  • John Burnside, who taught me creative writing when I was at St Andrews University, told us that the best piece of advice he ever had was in three simple words: ‘rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.’  Make sure your work is as polished as it can be before sending it to agents.  You also need to be prepared to edit your work with your agent and your publisher.
  • My author, Victoria Fox, gives more essential advice in one simple word: ‘persevere’.
  • Good luck!