on literary agents and my new-found appreciation for them

It is easy to get pissed off at literary agents.

To demonize them. To make them the Bad Guys. If you’re trying to break into the publishing industry (like I am) and just haven’t gotten there yet, it is all too easy. Oftentimes, it’s because you’ve sent out half a dozen paper hopes, with your child of a project described on it in as tantalizing of a way as possible … and then proceeded to collect half a dozen rejections. Sometimes it’s because you’re watching others get major deals, and you’re jealous. Sometimes it’s just one of those days where the struggle is hard – where the joy doesn’t quite outweigh the pain and tears.

And on those days, it just feels better to blame Them. Because they don’t GET you and how awesome your novel is and they probably didn’t even read your query or glance at the sample pages that would’ve CHANGED THEIR LIVES AND THE PUBLISHING WORLD so they just PASSED on it like TOTAL JERKS.

I’m guilty of this. I’d like to say that I’m not, but that just wouldn’t be honest. 🙂

But I had an experience at work recently that gave me a newfound appreciation for agents. What they do everyday, the choices they have to make, the amount of work that deserves our respect.

I work on website content for my company, and part of that includes monitoring our outsourcers’ work and making sure it’s up to snuff. Recently, we decided to put out a casting call for “teams” – essentially, writers could apply with samples of their work, and if they got chosen for our team, they’d get a chance to write articles for twice as much per word as they were currently getting in the free-for-all area. So I set it up, sent out the notice …

… and got 80+ applications in the next two days before I managed to close it down.

It took me almost two full work days to go through all of them. Almost all of them said that they were personally experienced in the subject area. Some of them didn’t follow instructions and just emailed me, some of them didn’t provide answers to the questions I posed, some of them didn’t provide writing samples.

Some of them did absolutely everything right, but there were typos everywhere; or the grammar was terrible and I didn’t like the idea of editing their stuff every time they nabbed an assignment; or their writing didn’t flow well; or their sample was fine – perfectly competent – but there was just no spark to keep me interested. I found very quickly that I often didn’t need to read all six paragraphs of every sample. I could tell with one whether they could put together a sentence effectively and whether they had enough pizzazz to hook me and prove that they had moxie that they could bring to our content.

And somewhere in the middle of all that, I realized that this might be a bit what going through query letters is like.

Dozens of them hitting the inbox every day. Some of them paying attention to submission guidelines, and some of them not. And it seems harsh to us writers that our submission packages might be dismissed so quickly when we have spilt blood and water over them, but if agents look at queries day in and day out, then of course they’re going to be able to tell from the first few paragraphs – or probably more like first few sentences – what works for them and what doesn’t.

Is that fair? Doesn’t matter. It’s just how it works. The question you should be asking (yourself) is: Are you willing to play the game or aren’t you?

Because the rules aren’t going to change just for you, no matter how special of a snowflake your manuscript is. If you want to go traditional, you have to get down and gritty and hook the big fish in those first few precious paragraphs.

I know it wasn’t easy for those applicants to hook me, and I only had to go through two days of it, so I can’t imagine how hard it’s going to be to catch the eye of a literary agent.

That’s a little scary to think about, but mostly it’s made me damn well determined to hone and polish and shine in every way I can so I can try to stand out on Query Day.

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