The #1 Thing Your Book Needs Before You Start Submitting to Agents

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Avel Chuklanov via Unsplash

Let’s say you’ve finally arrived at the querying stage with your work. You’ve done all the writing and polishing there is to be done so far, you’ve researched all the best agents for your genre, and you’re ready to start sending your manuscript out into the big, scary world.

At many times during the querying phase, often after a rejection or two rolls in, you might wonder to yourself: is there anything else I can do to get one of these agents to bite?

In fact, there is.

Professionals in the publishing world are all looking for the same thing: Promise.

Not “promise in a ~woo woo~ way, but “promise” as in potential to sell to an audience. At the end of the day, publishing is a business that needs to sell books to survive; if your book has the potential to sell, agents and publishers have the incentive to take you on. And what exactly makes a book sell? Well, that’s promise.

But what does promise look like, exactly? For fiction writers it can be a slippery concept, but not impossible to pin down.

You know those books you pick up and become totally immersed in within the first few pages? Those books you feel like you have to keep reading, not out of obligation, but because of a need to know what happens next? Those books that make thirty minutes feel like a second? That’s promise.

That immersion you feel as a reader is a form of trust; you may want to keep reading the book for a myriad of reasons, but ultimately it all comes down to the trust you feel in the author to take you on the kind of journey you want to be taken on, whether it’s to learn, to be entertained, to be enlightened, or a mixture of all.

The most perplexing thing is that trust usually comes not from the first chapter, but from the first sentence.

Take these first sentences, for example.

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

- The Secret History by Donna Tartt

“My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly.”

- Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

“Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat.”

- Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

“Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”

- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Every single one of those sentences is filled with tension, and leaves us with questions as well as the desire to have them answered. Even the most unassuming of them all — the opening sentence from Sharp Objects — uses that peculiar word “stinging,” which sticks in our minds and piques our interest. Why would one use the word “stinging” to describe the color red? Why was the sweater new? Why would the person choose it if it were ugly? Overall we’re left with an uncomfortable feeling about this unnamed person in the red sweater, and we immediately want to ease that discomfort. And that, my friends, is tension.

Now of course, each of these passages continue to further that intrigue and tension, which is exactly how we end up reading the whole chapter when we only meant to read the first sentence or two. But ultimately it’s that first sentence that draws us in with that promise of more good ones to come. Between the good writing and the tension, we feel comfortable putting our emotions in the hands of the author.

And that is exactly what sells books, which is what will get an agent to want to represent you.

If you can convince an agent from the first sentence that your book has promise, you’ll have a better chance of getting them to request the manuscript, and hopefully, to represent you.

Start building that momentum right away. Put the tension, the energy up front where they can’t miss it. Show them what they’re in for by committing to spending time with your book. Hook them, and then don’t release.

Lauren Taylor Shute is the Founder and CEO of Lauren Taylor Shute Editorial Inc., a full-service editorial firm based in New York City that helps authors around the world develop their ideas, perfect their manuscripts, and find representation or publication for their work. She speaks regularly at writing conferences and has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, and Glamour magazine.

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