I’ve been an editorial intern at not one, but two ‘very prestigious literary agencies’ in two major cities. I’ve logged hundreds of unpaid hours reading dribble that goes on for hundreds of pages — novels penned by housewives who list the names and ages of their children in their cover letters and spy stories with ‘steamy’ (i.e. awkward) sex scenes written by computer-programmer nerds.
My time kicking through the slush pile has taught me this: people are crazy and people are determined. I cannot imagine the amount of dedication and beautiful delusion it takes to write five hundred pages about a woman who must choose between a jazz musician and an eccentric LES artist. Especially when you consider that in all likelihood, nothing is going to come of an unsolicited query. In the short time I’ve worked at this second agency, I have green-lighted maybe two manuscripts. Two, out of thousands.
Before you bludgeon yourself with your MFA diploma or drag your novel to the trash bin, you should know this: I believe in you. You’re reading tips from an intern! And that’s more than I can say for most.
Speaking of being an intern: it’s hard. I read for seven hours straight, twice a week, with zero pay. Zero. After hour one of reading, I don’t care about your novel, or how you’ve been writing since you were five, and omigosh, you love creating worlds with words! I am the gatekeeper of your literary dreams and I automatically don’t care. Pretty bad, right?
If you can’t get a bright-eyed intern to care, do you really think a publisher is going to drop everything to read your memoir that is “just like Eat Pray Love, but on a donkey and through the South”? And even if they do care, do you think someone at Barnes and Noble is going to spend $18.99 on your book when they were just stopping in for a Frappuccino and an issue of Real Simple? Probably not.
But please trust me when I say that when I read a page that seems promising and well written and unique, I sit up. I want to be the intern that finds the gem. I’m a writer, too. I have to believe that all interns at literary agencies are conscientious enough to invest interest in something that is beyond even a little okay. I’m here for you, boo.
Here are some ways to get my attention, beyond being a gifted writer:
Have a writing resume. If you were a creative writing major in undergrad or lived through an MFA program, lead with that. That means you’ve been through workshops, which is a hell that should be required of anyone who starts in on penning a novel. If you weren’t formal about your writing education, that’s fine. But I hope you’ve been writing short stories for years and have begun sending them to literary magazines. I don’t mean The New Yorker. I mean start small, get your work out there. A lot of publishing works like this: other people liked it, so maybe I’ll like it?
Send me money. If you slip a 20 in there, I promise to read the first 50. Promise.
Or send candy. One woman taped an Iranian pistachio nugget to her novel set in Tehran. Only for a second did I consider some bitter writer poisoning us publishing naysayers before I devoured a free treat.
Don’t make me lick envelopes. I’m not six and that’s no longer fun. I prefer adhesive. And none of the hard-to-open white fiber envelopes, please.
We don’t recycle! It’s frightening. Best to send first twenty-five instead of fifty.
Don’t tell me what grades you got in school.
Don’t send a picture. What am I supposed to do with an 8×8 headshot of you? If I’m curious, I’ll Google.
Don’t tell me the bank is going to foreclose on your house and you need the money — and fast, if you don’t mind. There are faster ways to make money than publishing a literary novel.
If you’ve self-published your book, or as I like to call it, “printed and bound it,” please send it in regular print form.
I once heard that there is nearly zero demand for writing, but there is a high demand for good writing. It’s true. When a writer lands a literary agent, it’s not only because they are a talented person who has written something amazing, it’s because they have done it better than anybody else who knows how to print and send a manuscript. As rare as it is for somebody to shine through the slush pile, it does occur, and when it’s does, it is more than well deserved. It’s hard-won.