Nine Circles of Literary Agent Hell

Note: GrubStreet’s Muse and the Marketplace is cancelled this year due to Covid-19.

I’ve screwed up so many Manuscript Mart meetings at GrubStreet’s Muse and the Marketplace conference, I’ve been through Hell. I have been disconsolate, heard Satan’s calumnies, been scorched by the Inferno’s great heat. Speaking of Inferno, Dante’s nine circles of Hell is a useful, albeit morbid, way to frame my venial sins and how to improve—for the blessed day I escape literary agent Purgatory.

Fraud

At my first meeting, the agent asked other books I’d read in my genre. “I’ve been so busy writing I haven’t had time to read,” I said. “Hmm,” she replied, shooting lethal side-eye.

If Fraud circumscribes those pretending to be serious writers—that would be me.

Now, I identify at least five comps (comparative award-winning / bestselling titles published within the prior 3-5 years). I read them, tabulate their publishers, agents, and literary agencies obtained from Publishers Marketplace. I check amazon sales rankings and estimate sales using SalesRankExpress.com. To check word counts, peruse wordcounters.com.

Comps don’t just help market your manuscript—unearthing literary nuggets improves it.

Heresy

Have you heard the term log line? It’s a brief (usually single sentence) book summary stating its central conflict and plot synopsis, hinting at the emotional hook.

Heretically meeting an agent without preparing a good log line would have merited immolation during the Salem Witch Trials. In our more enlightened age, you’ll more likely be forever shunned. Chattering incoherently about who does what to whom in your book is about as flattering a look as pagans at the Tower of Babel.

The pitchforks-down best guidebook on log lines is Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence, by Lane Shefter Bishop. However, I warn you: reading it is easy. My log line has required a dozen iterations and feedback from fellow writers.

Write the best log line you can. It’ll be tough to go far without a good one.

Greed

Certain phrases in my dog’s hearing evoke a Pavlovian response: Here’s a treat! Let’s go outside! Banana (she loves bananas)! The Hounds of Hell are similarly roused by: Six-figure book deal! Pre-empt! Exclusive submission!

These phrases make you half-expect the agent to plunk down an offer on the spot. That Hell-Hound don’t hunt.

Look, I know you’re culturally savvy. You read Cosmo, Entertainment Weekly, and People. You know the difference between Emo rap and rapping offbeat. You’ve seen reality TV.

As Fire Marshall Bill would say, Lemme tell you somethin’: this ain’t Shark Tank or Project Runway. No one’s going to sign you based on 20 pages. Be happy to receive tepid interest, elated if they ask you for your entire manuscript and it’s actually ready.

Don’t get greedy.

Lust

I spent little time at first researching the agents I’d meet. I didn’t read books they represented, how many deals they did the previous year, or their dealmaker rankings. All I knew came from the conference website.

The notion of meeting an agent—any agent—enchanted me as Calypso mesmerized Odysseus. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was objectifying them—lusting, essentially. Idolizing what they represented, without getting to know them.

Now, I research them thoroughly via Publishers Marketplace. I do the same for their agencies, to understand additional resources at the agent’s disposal. And I try to read a couple of books they’ve represented.

Gluttony

Gluttony is a hard sin to avoid. I define gluttony as speaking excessively, not really hearing the agent, and making excuses. You may think that’s humility. It’s not. Overtalking is loutish. It’s self-absorption, navel gazing, and drinking your own Kool Aid (which didn’t end well for Jim Jones either, as Beelzebub can attest).

Wrath

The road to Hell is paved with expecting your agent—a mere mortal, by the way—to be an expert in your genre, or to fully appreciate in 20 pages what makes your work so astounding. Just because they read a lot doesn’t mean they’ve read everything. Or know everything. Getting angry doesn’t improve your future odds.

Think of agents is as non-expert representatives of your book’s initial audience. If they misconstrue something from your pitch, the healthiest response is clarifying your pitch so there’s less confusion in the future.

Violence

Even after my worst meetings, never once did I want to harm an agent. On the other hand, many times I felt like hurting myself (“if it bleeds, we can kill it”). I’ve felt stupid and unprepared; like my life’s work would never matter; that I had no business meeting an agent at all.

The Bible says, Satan comes to kill, steal, and destroy. If you allow him, he’ll kill your dreams, steal your hope, destroy your self-confidence. Don’t let him.

Treachery

It’s easy to feel betrayed when the conversation goes sideways. Invariably a question will be asked for which you haven’t prepared. Why did you decide on today of all days not to use deodorant? You will stammer. The agent might be hung over from last night’s party, or be less prepared than you hoped. In the most grievous of alternate realities, you might get rejected.

Trust me: none of this is treachery. No one harbors you ill will; neither you nor your novel are worthless. Welcome to publishing! You who’ve written short stories have received dozens (maybe hundreds) of rejections. Be better prepared next time.

Limbo

It’s easy to descend into Limbo towards the meeting’s end. This should be the time to ask a few pointed questions. Prepare some intelligent ones beforehand. Avoid asking irrelevancies such as their favorite childhood books or lunch recommendations.

What you do after the conference and your meetings have concluded is similarly important. Do not linger in the Bardo, like Willie Lincoln. Remain in community with fellow writers. Use their feedback to improve your log line, query letter, and manuscript. Research subsequent agents to target.

Above all, keep moving! Heaven and earth will pass away, but there’s a chance your words might remain. Get your head unstuck from your Purgatory Petard and get out of Hell!

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