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From Final Period To Securing Your Literary Agent: What Novelists Need To Know

  • By Harry Bingham
  • Published 04/20/2013
  • Fiction
  • Rating: blueratingfull-5385009blueratingfull-5385009blueratingempty-8153995blueratingempty-8153995blueratingempty-8153995 Unrated

You’ve written the final sentence. You’ve hit that final period. You have – maybe? – gone into caps, centred the line, and typed ‘THE END’. So congratulations. It’s a big moment. You’ve reached, perhaps, the halfway point of your journey. For authors of non-fiction, things are easier. I once sold two non-fiction books by just typing up a book proposal. The whole thing, spanning both books, was about a dozen pages. It included no sample chapters, and consisted mostly of bullet points. It took about a day to write, half a day to edit into shape. That day and a half got me a contract for two books. Novelists have it harder. We (and I mostly write fiction) have to complete the whole darn book before we can start to pitch it. And it’s not enough to reach the final sentence. We have to edit and prune and polish that manuscript until it sparkles. Remember: literary agents are not looking for potential. They’re looking for saleable manuscripts. I know one literary agent who mostly represents crime/thriller authors. He told me that the authors on his list are very good, so . why would he taken on a writer who wasn’t as strong as those he already represented. Indeed, he said, he tended to look at it the other way. Unless a new writer was better than those on his existing list, he preferred to spend his time and energy working on behalf of his existing clients. Scary stuff, if you’re a newcomer. The first thing to do is pause. Don’t rush the manuscript off to agents (or even to an external manuscript editing service: more on that score later). You’re probably best off just shoving it into a drawer and going on holiday. Give yourself at least a month away from your novel – longer, if you can stand it – then come back to the book with a cold eye. Re-read that text with a reader’s eye. You’re looking for bad sentences, sure, but you’re also looking for slack passages. For patches where the story seems to tread water. Chapters where the first page or two drags a bit. You have to work at the micro scale but also a macro scale. Commas on the one hand, huge pieces of plot mechanics on the other. They all matter.

So be tough on yourself. A literary agent doesn’t care how much work a particular adjustment may take. Nor should you. All that matters is perfection. If you know you need to make a change, don’t fail to make it just because there’s a week or two’s work there

. And be radical. Too many fiction writers cling too hard to an idea because it was part of their original conception for the manuscript. So what? Again: literary agents don’t care about your conception. They care about the book. Nelson Mandela once commented that the peace process required both sides to compromise on principles: issues they had once thought were non-negotiable. Be the same. You’re a writer. Everything is up for grabs. Your only task is to make the manuscript as good as it can be. And take your time. You will not get your manuscript where it needs to be in a single edit. I strongly doubt that you’ll get there in ten edits. (And if you perform an edit that does little more than change some punctuation, then that doesn’t count. In the sense I mean it, an edit is something that makes a substantive change to the text in front of you.) I’d say that for a new writer, fifteen or twenty real edits is a much closer guess at the level of work needed before that first draft is likely to feel OK. I also strongly advise getting external help. I’m a professional author and I get editorial help from at least three sources: my UK editor, my US editor and my literary agent. If I didn’t have that help, my novel would reach at best 95% of its potential. Probably more like 90%. And that’s good! I’m currently writing my eighth novel and my twelfth book. I mostly know what I’m doing. New writers of fiction are likely to need help even more than I do – and the quality thresholds they have to meet are at least as high and arguably higher. So get help! There are plenty of third party manuscript editing services, staffed by professional authors and former commissioning editors, who can help do what you need. It’s a frightening step to take, because it’s a solid investment of cash (probably the first one you’ll have made in this project of yours), but also because you are asking for tough, honest advice. Your Mom has probably read your book by this stage, but she loves you and she’s not a trained, professional reader. You know that those third party editors are going to hit you hard, and so they should! That’s what you pay them for.

When you get feedback on your work, let it linger. You don’t have to take all of it – you get advice, not orders – but you’re looking for that, ‘Oh yeah!’ of recognition. The moment when you realise an editor has nailed a problem you kind of always knew was there. That clarity is chastening, but it’s also positive. It’s the moment when your manuscript starts to live, breathe – and appeal to literary agents. Good luck.



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