How to submit to a literary agent: Carrie Plitt visits our Birmingham course

One of the best things about our creative writing courses in Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Manchester is that students get the opportunity to meet literary agents such as Carrie Plitt from Felicity Bryan Associates. We were delighted to welcome Carrie (pictured, right, with her Literary Friction podcast co-host Octavia Bright) to the final session of our recent Write Here… in Birmingham novel-writing course – during which students spent two full hours asking her questions about everything from how best to submit to agents and what to put in their synopses to author advances and current trends in publishing. Michelle Cook, one of the students who attended that session, wrote down a lot of Carrie’s advice and tips, and she shares them with you here…

Personalise your submission

Do find out about the agent and their client list. Have an idea of why your work would be a good fit for them. And, even if the agency you’re submitting to asks you to send your work to a general submissions inbox/portal, do address your covering letter to your chosen agent by name (first name is fine).

Your covering letter

A letter that’s well-composed and free of errors demonstrates you have a professional attitude to your work and that’s something agents will be looking for – and you want to aim for a professional but friendly tone. Carrie recommended that a letter should include a short opening that introduces your work (eg, ‘I’m delighted to present my debut novel’ – followed by title, word count, genre), a blurb paragraph akin to what you might see on the back of the book and brief details about you (eg, ‘I live in X with my family’, etc). Then briefly describe your writing life and mention any awards you’ve won or writing courses you’ve attended. Carrie was fairly neutral about mentioning self-published works as she felt the quality in this area is so variable it doesn’t tell you much. However, if you’ve been particularly successful in self-publishing it would definitely be of interest. Some indication that you understand where your work fits in the market would be useful too – think about authors that inspire you or whose readership you hope to appeal to.

The synopsis

This should be a summary of the plot and should include the ending. Keep it to a page if possible. One terrific piece of advice that Carrie gave was that if you struggle to see the plot clearly yourself, get a friend/beta reader to summarise it for you. Carrie doesn’t focus much on synopses (and sometimes doesn’t read them if she doesn’t want to know what happens before reading the work) but plenty of other agents do, so the synopsis is a document you should definitely take very seriously.

The writing itself

Carrie and her colleagues at Felicity Bryan Associates ask for the first 3-4 chapters, but all agencies have different requirements, so make sure follow individual agencies’ guidelines. In terms of content, the biggest draw for Carrie is voice. Anything that’s original and able to capture a world in a different way is going to interest her. As well as that, agents will look for indications that you can handle characterisation, pacing, plotting and how scenes fit together to create the story.

Before you submit to an agent, you should make your work as strong as you think it can possibly be. There’s no expectation that you should have paid for professional book editing at this stage, but your submission needs to be relatively polished. Before you submit, you should get some trusted friends/family to read your work and provide feedback. Carrie also suggested that, before you do your final edit, you should step away from the novel for a bit and come back to it with fresh eyes a few weeks later.

If an agent takes you on, you should expect much more editing to go on – and this will take around three to twelve months, depending on how deep or structural the edits need to be. Your agent will expect to work closely with you, and Carrie indicated that if a writer is completely intractable when it comes to making changes, it might be difficult for them to find an agent and/or an editor.

Presentation

The standard way to present your work is 12-point Times New Roman with 1.5 or double line-spacing. Carrie wasn’t too worried about presentation, but it makes sense to follow this advice.

It’s fine – and absolutely expected – that a writer will submit to several literary agents at the same time. Some agents prefer you tell them this in your covering letter, but Carrie wasn’t too concerned. One thing you definitely shouldn’t do is to resubmit the same piece of work to the same agent further down the line unless they’ve specifically asked for it. But submitting another, newer piece of work is fine.

Social media

It can be a plus if a writer is comfortable and successful at social media. However, if they’re not, it’s not a massive deal and Carrie felt it’s much better for someone not to do social media at all than do it badly. (I’m paraphrasing – she said it much more politely than that!)

There was some other commercial talk about rights, translation and film options that I didn’t write down, but was nonetheless interesting. My own advice is that if you think you might meet a literary agent face-to-face, it’s worth getting comfortable with talking about your work beforehand so you don’t make a numpty of yourself like I did! But, all in all, the final session of the Write Here… in Birmingham course was a really interesting and exciting evening. And with wine at the end, how can you lose?

Write Here… is dedicated to finding talented new writers outside London. We are currently offering affordable, seven-week creative writing courses taught by published authors in Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Manchester – beginning in May/June 2019. Each course costs £249 and features a visit from a literary agent.