Sunday, 29 January 2012

One-on-One with a Literary Agent: What Canadian Agents are Looking For

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit down for an hour with a literary agent to discuss the query package for The Harper’s Word.  This was an excellent experience, as it gave me some idea of what Canadian agents (in search of commercial fiction) are looking for.

(To read more about The Harper’s Word check out

I had met the agent before, at the Algonkian conference I attended in October, and was pleasantly surprised to find he remembered me.  As we settled in the office with my query letter, synopsis, and the first twenty pages of my manuscript, he dove at once into an analysis of the text itself.  Harper is told in the first person, but the agent indicated that he felt detached from the character.  I was, at first, surprised by this, but soon realized the reason.  Gwydion, the harper of the title, is a musician, and as such often detaches himself from social situations to play.  If the character is detached, it makes it difficult to the reader to attach herself to him.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that a detached character can’t be sympathetic, and the agent suggested a number of ways to make him more likeable.  Firstly, he suggested that I establish what Gwydion has to lose sooner in the book.  Secondly, while he praised my clean style, sense of dialogue, and ability to move well from scene description to narrative summary, he indicated that internal monologues were missing—and were important, because the text was first person.

The other suggestion the agent made for the text was to consider changing and/or shortening some of the names.  Since Harper is a retelling of Welsh myth, many of the characters have long and sometimes unpronounceable names.  Gwydion’s brother, Gilfaethwy, for example.  The agent thought the reader would find it easier if his name was shortened to Gil.  I understand that Gilfaethwy is not a particularly easy name to say aloud—or in your head, for that matter—but I’m hesitant to make that change.  My concern is that shortening the character’s name to a more modern “buddy-buddy” nickname might detract from the historic accuracy of the text.  I’d be interested in anyone’s input on this.

Our discussion of the text complete, the agent moved on to my query letter.  He indicated that a query should contain three things:

  1. A short synopsis of the book (between 150 and 200 words).
  2.   A positioning paragraph, where you describe how your book fits into the wider world of pop culture.  You can use books, movies, television shows, etc.
  3. A brief biography, including previous publications and any qualifications you have regarding the subject matter of your book.  For example, I own and play a medieval-style bray harp, not unlike the one Gwydion plays.

My query contained 1 and 3, but was missing 2.  Together, we managed to find a comparison and a point in the query where the comparison sentence would fit nicely.  Then, our time was up.

This opportunity was made possible by the Writers’ Community of Durham Region.  Local writers’ communities often engage agents and editors for workshops like this, and being a member of such a community gives you the chance to participate.  That’s not to say that non-members weren’t allowed, simply that the events are publicized to members, who therefore have a better chance of getting into the workshop.  If you aren’t a member of a writers’ community, I certainly suggest joining one.  This experience was one I would certainly repeat in future.

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