Wednesday, March 28, 2012

7 things you learn from interning with a literary agent

I've survived the first month of my internship! I don't know whether to be impressed by that fact or not. Overall I'm going to say that I'm impressed, because it's hard! For so many reasons, too...

I wanted to share with you the first few things that I've learned... because as a writer, I feel they are important. I'd love to hear your take on things as well, so make sure to comment and let me know what you think! It's possible that the things I'm learning here are NOT useful, and only apply to the agent I'm working with.

  1. Your synopsis is important! Seriously. I know a few people have been posting recently and complaining about having to write synopses. They're hard to do. After all, your masterpiece of a novel is probably 50,000-100,000 words! How can you summarize the entire plot in just a few measly paragraphs? But, if an agent (or an agent's assistant) can't get the essence of your plot in a neat little package, the likelihood of your manuscript being picked up drops significantly. So craft them... craft them well, grasshoppers.
  2. Building off of number 1., make sure to review and refine your pitch. Sending a query to an agent involves so much more than just copying and pasting your synopsis into the body of an e-mail and pressing send. Standard etiquette, people. Introduce yourself. Tell the agent why you're writing (This involves a synopsis of your synopsis. Madness!). Remember. There's nothing new under the sun. Don't bother telling the agent that your manuscript is one-of-a-kind. It's not. I guarantee it. Cheesy pitches and synopses get tossed right to the slush pile.
  3. Find a way to graciously handle rejection. Agents receive hundreds of submissions a week. And in-depth discussions of the reasons for choosing not to take on your work is not on the top of their to-do list. Although, the one I've worked with is willing to take a little time to discuss it with you if you ask politely. Always remember, though, that whatever advice you wish to receive is a gift, not a right. (Maybe this is different with other agents. I don't know.)
  4. Your first two chapters are key. Write well, little grasshopper. Hook your readers early. Introduce the characters and the plot in a way that grabs the reader's attention and draws them forward into the story. If the first 10 pages aren't amazing, you're looking at rejection.
  5. Story arc. It's kinda important. If your novel wanders off in the middle, near the end... anywhere, really... it's going to get rejected, or at least asked for a rewrite. If you can catch this before the agent does, you'll save yourself the pain of opening that e-mail rejecting your work. The last two chapters matter just as much as the first two.
  6. How can you catch things like a weak story arc? Get it edited. Well edited. Don't just have beta-readers look at your manuscript (although they're important, too). Have a professional look at your work and do an overview for you. It costs money, but it can mean the difference between a publishing contract and the slush pile.
  7. Nothing is sacred. My friend Sarah Mebasser said that the other day, and it's true. Scenes that you've slaved over, that are your precious pets, that you think are pivotal to the whole story can be cut, likely WILL be cut. Language that you have deemed poetical will be criticized as ambiguous, vague, even bad grammar! Prepare yourself for this inevitability. Shelve your ego and go to work. (This goes as well for interns who work on projects/blog posts/etc., for their bosses. If you can get rid of your ego, you can learn a lot. Easier said than done, though.)
Well, that's all from the peanut gallery so far. I know that I'm a beginner, learning as I go. If you have any thing to add, I'm happy to listen and consider!


  1. terrific tips! thanks for posting them. it can be difficult as a writer to face a lot of those things, but they are all key to getting published :)

  2. Great tips! Thanks for sharing.

    *faceplants back into my synopsis-hell*

  3. Fantastic post. And I really do hate the synopsis. I'm always afraid that I'm a vampire, sucking the life out of my story, and the dried, shriveled husk that's left is my synopsis.

    Okay, I'm a little over dramatic, but they always say things like keep your voice in your synopsis--so freaking hard!--and that makes me want to cry.

  4. Thanks for a fantastic post and some great advice. I'm not anywhere near the querying stage yet, but this is definitely advice that will stay with me when I am.

  5. Great post, lady. I actually had someone tell me to put in my query what makes my story unique. I mean it is written by me in my own made up world with my own made up characters, but there is the same basic 'hero's journey' premise. I was stumped. Glad to know that person was wrong.

    Thanks for sharing these hard won kernels of wisdom!

  6. So here's what I think, Sabrina. I think that if the only thing that makes your book different is the hook at the end, it's not that different, right? Your synopsis should be in the same voice as your writing, and your voice should set you apart from other writers. That's what makes you unique. And that's what will grab an agent's attention. Just my perspective, tho', from what I have learned so far. I may be wrong.

  7. Wow, lots of great stuff! I think I'll have to get an internship with an agency! And congrats for surviving this long! I'm sure it's a ton of work!


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