You've been told that the best way through the massive set of publishing hurdles is to start by querying an agent who will be so taken by your brilliance, they will sign you and immediately wrestle a six-figure advance from one of the major publishing houses.
You send out your manuscript samples and your letters. And you wait.
Through some experience with the process, I'd like to now share with you what I've discovered writing agents loathe seeing in the samples and letters they receive.
Literary agents hate:
1. OriginalityThe sad, sorry truth is that agents (and publishers) are looking for books that will sell. They look at it this way: past success is the surest sign of future success. This is why there's been a glut of vampire books since the Twilight franchise took over the various bestseller lists (the precursor to those was Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire series).
If you want to sell a book to a publisher, it should probably not be a niche book with brand new ideas. It's more likely to find them turning pages if it is either similar to -- or a combination of -- genres that are selling right now. If you're incredibly astute or prescient, your book will be the sort hitting a wave of popularity right at the time your manuscript comes across an agent's desk -- not six months before and not a year after.
2. SurprisesGot that main character who shockingly dies in chapter four? Or that killer twist ending that will re-make the model of genre books for a generation? Don't think for a second your possible agent wants to read that for themselves. Spoil it for them. They want to know every major plot detail in your query letter. They want to know *exactly* why they should care about your book. And, more importantly, why 500,000 readers will care.
3. ErrorsDo you have even one typo or grammar error in your sample chapters? Don't even think about sending it. I've heard of editors and agents who have thrown samples in the waste bin upon seeing even one questionable sentence in a sample chapter. They want writers who are editors too. Yes, a book will go through substantial edits and even re-writes after it's accepted but you won't be the author of that book if it doesn't read as though it's "right off the rack."
4. CredentialsThis is a tricky one. Yes, agents want to know that you're a capable writer. They even might like to know that you've sold 30,000 copies of your debut as an indie or self-published wunderkind. Credentials about your Masters in English Lit may also be helpful. But they don't care about how you write a blog with heavy web traffic -- not even in this age of social media. And they definitely don't want to hear that you wrote travel articles about scuba diving for a seniors magazine -- not if your book is a period piece about a rough-and-tumble archaeologist. Choose which things you're going to brag about wisely.
5. SymbolsYour book might be the 2013 literary version of The Grapes of Wrath or The Sound and The Fury but if the plot doesn't move like lightning and if the characters aren't instantly recognizable, you're lost in the slush pile. Don't play up how deep and meaningful your manuscript is, how it will be "one for the ages" of literary greats. If your agent discovers it in her reading, great! If she doesn't, hope to hell she sees those sticky characters and greased plot slipping along with grace and speed.
Toss these five things, and you, my writerly friend, may have a better chance at snagging the eye of a literary agent who'll think your manuscript is a genuine, blue ribbon prize!