There is no secret handshake

When people ask me for advice about approaching literary agents I find there is always a  continuing theme, a deeply embedded belief: that there exists a secret handshake.

Everyone is convinced there is a great arcane mystery to getting an agent and it must surely involve a secret handshake. This secret handshake is the one thing everyone refuses to tell you about. The secret that can be bought for neither love nor money. The secret of secrets.

The greatest secret of all.

I have bad news: there is no secret handshake.

Of course, literary agent acquisition conspiracy theorists will say That’s what you would say, you keeper of secrets, you!

No, really. In the event of meeting a genuine living, breathing literary agent (as opposed to a Zombie or Undead Literary Agent), what you need to do is hideously simple:

(a)  Don’t be crazy. If you are crazy, hide the crazy. Hide it well.

(b)  Write a good story.

(c)   Know your story inside and out BUT (and here’s the tricky bit), be able to sum it up in a succinct and fascinating paragraph – or a story question, for example “What if an unloved orphan suddenly found himself at a school of magic, with undreamed of powers?”. Do not use a series of sentences staring with “And then, and then, and then!”

(d)  In summing up your tale, be able to answer these questions: What are the highlights of your tale? Who are the big players? What makes your story engaging? What makes your story stand out from the rest? What are the stakes for your characters?

(e)  Have a one-page synopsis that can be handed out at a moment’s notice (but ONLY if you’re asked for it – see point (a)).

(f)   Do not have re-written Star Wars, Twilight, Harry Potter, etc. Do not start your sentence with “It’s just like The Sopranos but with dragons!” You want an agent to see your story’s uniqueness.

(g)  Do not be rude or demanding or desperate – just like when you’re trying to impress a potential date/mate, these are bad ways to be.

(h)  Be prepared.

(i)   Don’t be crazy.

That’s it. Entirely about having the right tools (synopsis, blurb) and behavioural tendencies. There is no secret that is being kept from you. Yes, it all seems deceptively simply, but can you pull it off? That’s the question.

No secret handshake.


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