Tips for Acquiring an Agent: Keep Things Simple!
Welcome to spring, writers!
This past weekend we had both snow and sixty-degree weather in Wisconsin. But that’s life in the Dairy State; post-winter weather is a Shakespearean tragedy. My home state’s spring is a melodrama, like combining Hamlet’s equivocation with Lear’s temper. Its nutty weather is one of the reasons why I place my cozy mysteries here. Nothing like storms, wind, and subzero cold—all within forty-eight hours—to boost conflict.
I have an exciting announcement: After two years of writing and revising a manuscript and pitching my cozy mystery series, I am represented by Julie Gwinn and The Seymour Agency. The journey was exhilarating and difficult. Ultimately, the effort paid off; it was worth it. Every step of the way, I learned new skills. That’s what it’s about, right? Book publishing and sales are great, indeed. But the knowledge I gained will stay with me forever. And I can share it with other aspiring novelists.
For the March and April blog posts, I will offer advice about acquiring an agent from my point of view. Tips abound in the blogosphere; others will have different ideas. What I recommend is my opinion only.
This month, I focus on writing a logline, hook, and attending conferences. I advocate attending writing events not to acquire an agent but to improve supplemental materials such as the query letter and pitch.
Write Your Novel’s Logline
A logline is a one- to two-sentence description of a novel’s plot. A writer must summarize her entire story succinctly and make it sound intriguing. Like a book’s theme, its logline usually isn’t apparent until the work is completed and revised.
Writers struggle with loglines because we know too much about our stories; we want to tell agents (and readers) all about it. But like a good ad jingle that concisely describes a product, a logline teases what’s ahead. It takes skill to write a good logline, so practice it!
Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t make sense the first time; I understand.
Online generators are helpful. Advice about writing a compelling logline includes combining a book’s setting + the main character + the obstacle + conflict + the goal. Check out examples. They work as inspiration.
But when I began writing loglines, a complicated formula was just that, complicated. I was overwhelmed. So, I reduced the logline to its simplest description: The main character struggles to reach a goal and faces an obstacle along the way. (ONE obstacle, writers. Stick with the main conflict.)
I’m writing a cozy mystery series about a retired fashion model who uses her skill at spotting posers to solve murders. My draft logline was: A model retires from the New York City fashion scene to own and operate a craft mall, then solves a murder.
Not exactly gripping. But it was a start.
I lived with the simple description while I revised my novel. I needed to learn more about the story—and loglines—before improving what I’d written. After a time, once I knew my story, it became: A model flees the Big Apple and troubling fashion industry to return to her touristy hometown. But trouble soon finds her: She becomes a suspect in the murder of a social media influencer and faces losing her new business, her relationship, and her freedom.
Novel writers need to create a logline, hook, query letter, and pitch. (Even if you’re not going the traditional route, the materials are essential. Think of them as marketing or press pieces for when your Indie book is published.)
Writing a logline is frustrating. For those starting out, keep the formula simple. Don’t overthink it. Write your novel’s “bones” like this: The main character struggles with a goal and an obstacle that is in the way.
Think about it for a few days. A week. A month. However long it takes for the action to percolate in your mind. Then, revise it.
I believe simpler is better for writers who are new to the agent-querying process. Otherwise, it becomes an exercise in frustration. It’s hard enough to write and revise an entire novel. Struggling with the supplemental documents leads to burnout and failure.
One more thing: Your agent and publisher may change the logline you’ve worked so hard to develop. Do not be offended. It’s part of the collaborative process.
Writing Your Novel’s “Hook” Paragraph
Again, I advise keeping things simple at first. Ask “what if?” Then, answer it. What if a former fashion model had to solve a murder to save her new business and her freedom? What if the model’s former magazine editor mysteriously arrived in town? What if the model had to attend a series of holiday parties to solve the crime?
Ask “what if” questions, then answer them. Write in short sentences. Jot down answers, then leave them alone. Come back after a time and reread. Let your mind percolate on the compelling elements of your story. After a time, write an exciting, twisty paragraph that brings out the best of your book.
Don’t be surprised if writing the hook para takes as much effort as your novel!
Being succinct, exciting, and coherent are complicated copywriting tricks to pull off. It’s almost as if there should be an entire industry devoted to it—oh, wait, there is. It’s called marketing. And lucky us, aspiring novelists. We get to think like marketers while pitching our books to literary agents—even though we’re not.
Here’s a helpful formula: Describe the protagonist in one sentence. Offer his or her immediate circumstance. Describe the central conflict and goal. Describe complications affecting the goal. That’s the start of a strong hook paragraph.
Note: The term “hook” is confusing. Some writers describe it as the logline. Also, the novel’s hook (the first-page incident that “hooks” the reader) isn’t the same as the one describing a story to an agent. Sigh. But don’t give up—keep reading, learning, and writing!
Attend as many conferences as possible. LISTEN to feedback!
I went to the New York Pitch Conference in person. Since then, my conference attendance has been online due to health issues I experienced and the pandemic. I couldn’t travel. I took advantage of online opportunities such as Writing Day Workshops, Thrillerfest, and The Career Authors Writer’s Retreat. Attend what your time and budget allows. Find conferences that offer query or pitch evaluations.
(You can submit novel chapters for evaluation, too. But I recommend focusing on one thing at a time.) Do the best you can with a pitch, submit it, then listen to the feedback provided by an expert. Keep your expectations low. Feedback will be gentle, harsh, helpful, and conflicting.
But listen to what’s said and revise accordingly.
I emphasize listening and learning because writers can be territorial. (Not all, of course. Some writers are territorial.) But I’ve attended enough workshops, critique groups, and conferences to see who listens and learns and who doesn’t. Don’t waste time defending why a lion ate your main character and then MC returned to the narrative via spaceship. Answer the evaluator’s questions (if you’re asked). Take notes and absorb what’s being said; consider incorporating the suggestions into your query.
Pitches suffer from too much backstory and over-inclusion of plot points. Also, writers don’t think commercially; we don’t see the hook or selling point of our books. We defend every decision about the story we’ve created and refuse to change it.
Not every writer acts this way. But many do—and I get it. I understand that manuscripts are like children, dear to the heart. But accepting that writing is a journey where you’ll learn every step of the way brings less frustration and more satisfaction, in my opinion.
Embrace the Journey
Stay strong, writers! Again, the strategies outlined in this blog post helped me acquire an agent. I hope the advice—keep things simple while writing the logline and hook; listen while getting feedback—assists your journey to representation.
Next month, for part two, I’ll offer additional insight about landing an agent.
Happy spring, writers. Stay warm. (Or cool, depending on the weather’s mood in our beautiful state!)
T.K. Sheffield, MA
Pre-published author, The Seymour Agency
The Backyard Model Cozy Mysteries: A retired fashion model uses her skill at spotting posers to solve murders in her touristy Wisconsin town.
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