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IN Her Own Write
January, 2008

Food of Love

Landing An Agent
The secret formula
By  Anne R. Allen

The difficulty in finding literary representation has increased exponentially in recent years. When I started writing novels over a decade ago, I landed an agent with my second query letter. Yup – an actual member of AAR took on my very first manuscript, in spite of horrific typos and some seriously clunky passages.
I have to admit she dropped me within months after she couldn't sell it to a handful of editors at the top houses.
Hooking my second agent took a while, but after I'd written two more novels, I signed with a fledging agent who worked her tail off for me. But she went out of business before my contract was up.
Finding a third agent was tougher. That one took on only one of my books, demanded extensive rewrites, and dropped me soon after. But meanwhile, I'd sent the rejected mysteries to an independent publisher who offered me a contract. They were published to great reviews. But as often happens with indies, the company recently went belly-up.
Now that I've amended my wish list to include a publisher who stays in business long enough to pay me royalties, I'm back in the agent-hunting jungle, facing competition fiercer than anyone dreamed of fifteen years ago.
In the six months I've been at it, I've had some requests for reads, but no offers. I've been religiously studying agent websites and blogs, determined to find the secret of making it in today's market.
I already knew certain elements can red-flag even the best prose for automatic rejection – not because the techniques are wrong, but because they're tough to do well. With hundreds of submissions to read per week, agents won't read on if they see a stronger than average chance of failure.
Here are some red flags and how to avoid flying them:

  1. Multiple or omniscient points of view: Stick to one point-of-view character and show everything through his/her eyes in either first or third person. If you change to a different viewpoint, do it in a new chapter.
  2. Robinson Crusoe openings: Don't open with your protagonist alone – in a car, on a plane, waking up in the morning, etc.
  3. Backstory in the opening chapter: Begin with action, then dribble necessary information into the story as it moves along.
  4. Flashbacks: Start in the midst of conflict and keep moving forward.
  5. Prologues: Jump into the story on page one.
  6. First line dialogue: Let us know who and where your characters are before they speak.

Caveats continue to become increasingly restrictive. Agents want that perfect novel to please the largest number of people and offend the fewest: A multi-purpose entertainment item that can sell in every Wal-Mart in America.
Some won't look at fiction pitched as "humorous", because humour is subjective. Many want no mention of religion or politics. Some abhor storylines including the death of a child, priest-abuse, or rape. Several suggest avoiding a multilayered plot or convoluted timeline that can't be comprehended in a fast read.
A number tell newbies to stick to genre writing because "literary" and "mainstream" markets are too tight – and not all genres are equal: Westerns are out, and markets for chick lit and cozies are saturated.
I put all this information together and came up with – just what you're thinking – a recipe for snoozerrific verbal pabulum.
So do I rewrite my satiric mysteries as historical weepers, de-quirk the heroine, and turn her hot boss into a vampire? 
Nope. I can't believe honest, original storytelling has been Wal-Marted from the earth. New authors are published every day. Good ones.
So I'll keep sending out those queries. I hope you will too.  
As I compiled these guidelines, I remembered a Dorothy Parker verse about her generation's dubious rules for husband-hunting. Paraphrasing The Ladies' Reward, I offer my fellow agent-hunters the following advice:

by Anne R. Allen
. . . with apologies to Dorothy Parker

Writer, writer, never pen
Background story till page ten.
Use no flashbacks – no, nor prologue.
Never start your book with di'logue.
Set the hero's hair on fire.
Keep the situation dire.
Write in genres tried and true
From a single point of view.
Tell your tale in linear time.
Avoid a plot that strains the mind.
No dead kids, bad priests, abuse,
Or politics in your debuts.
Make it light but never funny.
(Humour's too subjective, honey.)
Stick to vampires, dates, and clothes.
Innovation's for the pros.
And if that gets you published kid,
You'll be the first it ever did.
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Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and freelance writer. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK in 2005 and is available from and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food Of Love is available from and as well as

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IN Her Own Write
IN This Issue
For Whose Eyes Only?
Rewrites Without A Contract?
What's Your Genre?
Who Needs An Agent?
Lots Of Plots
Writers' Conferences?
Writing The Dreaded Synopsis
Hooks, Loglines, and Pitches
Landing An Agent

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