Monday, June 4, 2012

five signs you're about to land an agent: observations from a freelance editor

Over the past three years, INTERN has written manuscript critiques for many would-be authors, of whom some have gone on to find representation, go on submission, and basically get the publishing ball rolling, and some have not (at least, not yet). One of the neat things about freelance editing is that you get to be a fly on the wall throughout other writers’ journey towards publication, and INTERN has observed some interesting patterns amongst her clientele. Here are some factors that differentiate the soon-to-be-agented writers from the writers who have a little further to go.

1. They’ve been at it for a while.

In INTERN’s experience, the novel that lands the agent is almost never a client’s first manuscript. In fact, the clients who get in touch with one of those ecstatic “OMG agent!!!” e-mails a few months down the road have almost always written two or three other manuscripts, and perhaps even done a round of querying for one of them before deciding to move on.

See also Querying Euphemisms, “This is my first novel.”

2. They already have a grasp of some of their manuscript’s problems.

In general, writers who accompany their manuscript with an e-mail along the lines of “I know the middle section’s dragging, but I can’t figure out what to cut” or “the plot gets all tangled up after page 200, ack, help!” are closer to representation than writers who have no idea how to gauge the quality and/or doneness of their own manuscript. The ability to self-assess is a strong predictor of future writing success (at least, among INTERN’s self-selected and completely unscientific sample of editing clients).

The less experienced the writer, the more they tend to expect a yes/no, pass/fail type answer: “Is it any good? Do I have talent? Huh, huh?” Because they are less able to identify their manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses, they assume it must either be uniformly good or bad.

In contrast, writers who are a little further along tend to ask a very different type of question: “What do I have to do to take this manuscript to the next level?” They have some awareness of their manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses, even if they can’t quite put their finger on the specific reasons that certain things are failing to work.

3. They are willing to make drastic changes.

An editor’s mandate is to make a manuscript the best it can possibly be. With that in mind, a critique or editorial letter will sometimes recommend massive and seemingly mind-boggling levels of plot changes, restructuring, and reimagining.

In INTERN’s experience, a disproportionate number of clients who e-mail a month or two after a critique saying, “Okay, so I went ahead and deleted Character A and rewrote Part II to take place in Setting B while scrapping plotlines C, D, and F and WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THIS BEFORE?!?” end up agented within the year.

This is not to say that writers who decide to move on to another project instead of investing the time and emotional energy in resolving a quagmirish manuscript are wrong. Far from it—it all counts towards #1, experience, and besides, INTERN can hardly think of a change more drastic than moving on to another project completely.

4. They value improvement for its own sake.

The soon-to-be-agented writers get just as excited about the prospect of finally nailing that subplot/scene/ending/character as they are about the possibility of getting an agent and book deal. The manuscript isn’t a means to an end (“get me an agent and a book deal and faaaame!”) but a thing worth perfecting in itself, because it is right and proper to do your craft well.

Love for the craft is a strong indicator of future success because it means that the writer in question is more likely to carry on in the face of the inevitable stumbles and disappointments—to hang in there long enough to get to the “agented” stage.

5. They are friendly and professional.

This is undoubtedly a result of INTERN’s highly unscientific sample pool, because lord knows that plenty of cranky, unreasonable and downright insane writers get agents and book deals every day. But it bears noting: 100% of INTERN’s editing clients who now have agents are well-organized, articulate, friendly, and reasonable —or perhaps more to the point, they are capable of projecting a well-organized, articulate, friendly and reasonable image in their communications, regardless of how stressed out, incoherent, frantic or insecure they feel on the inside.


This is not to say that every writer who has been at it for a while, who is invested in honing his/her craft, who is willing and eager and earnest and well-researched will find an agent and go on to happy book dealdom and do it in a timely fashion. Some books are harder to sell than others, and the publishing industry is insanely fickle and slow and unreliable. Suffice to say that the writers whose eventual agenting INTERN has been lucky enough to hear about have all shared certain qualities* (other than the obvious, talent).

*for what it’s worth, INTERN suspects that #1, experience—as in sheer number of hours spent writing and revising—is the most important of the five, as it tends to lead to the other four automatically. So if you are a not-yet-agented writer who is reading this and wondering how it applies to you, take heart and write more.


  1. I really like point #5. Why be any other way when you can be decent? When I figure that one out I'll bottle it and send Intern a sample as gift of gratitude for her many good posts.

    1. We're coming out of the synthesized aether for you city folk and this is a fine slab of neglected psychedelic sunshine pop.

  2. I fit all of those criteria, but after working with Agent #4 for six months, I've decided to do anything but write for six months. (So far it's going quite well, thank you.)


    1. oh dear. here's wishing your six-month writing hiatus leaves you replenished and fully stocked with good mojo...(and hoping you learn something neat like unicycling in the meantime!)

  3. I must be close! Thanks for sharing your observations.

  4. Oh, INTERN, you have no idea how encouraging this is! I am right there {4 completed novels, not counting NaNo} and currently working on some revisions for an agent. I know you're not guaranteeing anything, haha, but I feel considerably heartened to know that I might be close! :)

  5. this makes me think I can send emails ALTERNATING ALL CAPS to agents and I won't be dismissed as a crazy person. This is good NO, GREAT news.

    you are precisely right about experience being the deciding factor. First, it separates the determined writers from the people trying it out. If you're determined, you'll care about being a better writer, not just about selling. Second, it makes you a better writer because practice-perfect-etc. Third, friendly people are always great.

  6. Though I know #1 is the most crucial to success, I think #4 is really the key to good writing, which is what lasts, what matters, and what people like to read the most.
    I love a little honed-down wisdom from someone who reads a lot of different ms's. Thanks!

  7. I must be close since I've already re-written two manuscripts, one on an agent's say so. Here's hoping. Great post.

  8. Basically, we just gotta keep working, revising, writing, going. That's just what I needed to hear. Maybe, just maybe I will open my manuscript today (it's my third plus a few halfs, so I think I've hit #1 at least). Thanks for the pep talk.

  9. Great post. I've found, now that I have a book published and another to be pubbed in a few months, that I'm getting way more requests to see my third and fourth novels by agents. So experience and that stick-to-it-iveness really does make a difference. Plus I've worked with a personal editor and am accustomed to heavy-duty critiques. I'm still hoping to land an agent.

  10. Yay, the Intern gets it right, as usual!

  11. I'm going to share this with my writer friends!

    I've been working on my second ms for over a year now. Most of the time has been spent re-writing little piece by little piece because I've been too stubborn to take the advice of other writers and just give the story a whole new look.

    Recently though, I realized an amazing story was more important than my stubbornness and I did the overhaul thing. Which has blossomed into a story I love so much better! #3 and #4 definitely ring true for me. :)