Literary agent, Madeleine Milburn: Top tips on submitting work to an agent

Many thanks to the brilliant agent, Madeleine Milburn, on writing the following post for London Writers’ Club.

Here are some tips for writer to think about before submitting their work to an agent. I personally receive between 20 and 50 submissions from new writers each day, but the strong ones always stand out.

– Use a strong and compelling title that grabs an agent’s attention. Bestselling titles resonate with a reader before they open a book, for instance GONE GIRL, ROOM, BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP and THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS. Don’t use a title that only makes sense once you start reading the novel.

– Do not pitch your book in your synopsis. A synopsis is a straightforward chronological account of the most important things that happen in your story. A lot of agents read this last or don’t read it at all.

– Your ‘selling’ pitch, or blurb, needs to be incorporated in your covering letter or introductory email. This is what needs to ‘sell’ your book and get an agent excited about reading your opening chapters. Read the back cover of books in your genre and study what makes them compelling. To practice, write a blurb for your favourite book and then work on yours.

– Practice pitching your book in one line to get to the core of your story. I did a quick exercise in preparation for the Frankfurt book Fair by pitching new titles by my clients in one line: here. You need to make sure that you position your book straight away, i.e. tell the agent the genre you are writing in.

– Opening chapters are extremely important as this is the only material an agent has to judge your work. They need to be strong, enticing and compelling. Do not ‘info dump’. Background information and backstory is never very compelling when we are not familiar with your characters. It can slow the pace and bore readers. Let your reader do the work. Create suspense, hook us in with a central character so that we are desperate to know more about them and read on. Do not make your chapters too long!

– Strong characters are so important. Everyone remembers characters rather than the intricate details of a plot, for instance James Bond, Jack Reacher, Sherlock Holmes.

– Position your book on the shelves. I want to see that a writer has researched the market and knows that there is a readership for the novel. Where would your book sit? Next to Lee Child? Next to Helen Fielding? An editor who loves your work needs to persuade the rest of the publishing team that there is a market for your book. But please don’t say you are ‘the next’ Dan Brown, say you hope your work would appeal to ‘readers of’ Dan Brown…

– Only mention your achievements and experience that is relevant to the book you are submitting. We don’t need your whole background. Keep your letter short and sweet. You are trying to sell the story not yourself. An agent will be interested in you if they love your story! Also, just pitch one book in your covering letter. Again, an agent will be interested in all your work if they love the book you are submitting. This needs to be the book you want to launch your writing career with.

– Join writing groups, read book trade news, follow agents on twitter, study their websites.

– Make sure your whole manuscript is thoroughly polished before submitting to agents. Read it out loud, go through it with a fine toothcomb weeding out any repetition or anything that does not move the plot along.

– John Burnside, my creative writing tutor at St Andrews university, gave the invaluable advice in three words: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

– Do not submit to agent’s on an exclusive basis. You don’t want to be waiting for months for a response as time is short. Most agent’s will tell you they prefer to see an exclusive submission but this is just so they don’t have to compete with other agents to represent you. A strong voice and covering letter will always stand out. You want to be in a position where you can meet each agent who offers you representation. It’s such an important relationship and you need to be on the same wavelength.

Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency

Madeleine Milburn has a reputation for launching new writers internationally. The Agency has a long-term vision and an international plan for each author, negotiating significant deals with publishers in the UK, the US and foreign markets. The Agency also works to option Film & TV rights to leading production companies and film studios. Further to graduating from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, Madeleine Milburn has worked at the oldest literary agency in the UK and the most commercial agency in the UK, with three No.1 bestsellers. Previous to running her own ship, she has been a Rights Director, Deputy MD of Children’s Books and Women’s & General fiction agent. She’s now looking for new writers of reading club fiction and bestselling genre fiction including crime, thrillers, mystery, historical, women’s, romance, humour, New Adult, YA and children’s. She’s also keen to represent some non-fiction and literary ‘genre-bending’ fiction.

Follow Madeleine on Twitter at: @agentmilburn. Submissions address: submissions@madeleinemilburn.com

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