Friday, 5 October 2012

Sweating the Small Stuff

Writing well is all about the mastery of fine detail: the feel of cold asphalt on your cheek, the taste of fresh blood in your mouth, the angry squawk of a distant ambulance threading its way through rush hour traffic. It's only by inching from moment to moment, from word to word, that a book gets written at all. But it's easy to get so immersed in the small stuff that you lose sight of the bigger picture.

This could easily be a lead-in to a discussion of plot structure or theme, but today I wanted to focus on agent submissions, because this is an area where a passion for the finer details can overbalance into neuroticism. I can remember, in the early years, spending hour after hour revising my covering letter each time I was rejected, convinced that this was the reason my genius was so under-appreciated. But I think that every time I changed it, it got a little worse. The original letter had an offbeat and quirky style that suited the book I had written, whereas the later versions became bland and flavourless.

Unwittingly, I think agents feed our obsession for detail when they present very specific submission criteria on their websites. This is intended to make the agent's life easier when assessing submissions and to school the hopeless so they don't try to present their latest novel by writing it in felt-tip on the back of a tortilla wrap. For the semi-professional author however, these criteria turn into a challenge of epic (not to say neurotic) proportions:
  • This agent wants a two-page synopsis – can I just double-space my standard one-pager?
  • Why don't I have that font on my Mac?
  • Will they hate me forever if I send something that's twenty-five words over the limit?
  • Surely they can't really mean "send no attachments?"
  • How thin can I make the margins on this document before it becomes completely unreadable?

This kind of micro-manuscript-management can easily distract a writer from more important considerations like:
  • Is my book ready to submit?
  • Does this agent represent the kind of book I've written?
  • Could I actually work with this person?

Pulling back to take in the bigger picture can really pay dividends in the search for an agent. Much like applying for a job, it's well worth taking the time to target agents strategically, according to who they are and what kind of work they enjoy. Then, you can at least indulge your perfectionist tendencies on a directed basis, rather than getting hopelessly wound up with no hope of success. Beyond a certain level of competence, though, I don't know how much crafting the perfect submission really helps you – an agent will make an instant gut reaction about your work on the first page, because that's their job. If they don't love what you've written, then no amount of proofreading is going to fix that.



  1. So true Nick - I've recently been guilty of overworking that first page too - trying so hard to get it to represent every aspect of the book and my writing style that it's actually no longer representative of the book at all! Thanks for a timely reminder to write what you love and let it speak for itself instead of trying to tick a load of someone else's boxes.

  2. 'Felt tip on the back of a tortilla wrap' really made me laugh. Not that I would EVER think of doing that. Oh no.

  3. Those last 2 questions are a definite must to think about. That is what I was thinking when I listened to the agents that night. I only pitched to the ones that I read/heard took fiction for the age range I write, and when I heard them speak and guessed that they sounded nice. All 5 agents I spoke to after the panel were nice and I felt I could work with them.