September 11th, 2013

Advice For Writers From Literary Agents

Writing on PaperBy Chuck Sambuchino

Literary agents are full of great advice for writers. That’s why, whenever I am concluding an interview with an agent, I always end the encounter by asking “Is there any other piece of advice you’d like to discuss?”

This open-ended question often draws a fantastic answer, as the agent’s most passionate advice will pour out.

That’s why I’ve gone through a whole bunch of literary agent interviews and cobbled together some of the best writing tips that agents have passed on over the years. There was so much good material that I had to break it down into multiple columns. This is Volume I, and you can check out agents’ helpful and inspiring advice below.

And I want to take a moment and say that I’m excited about being a recurring new contributor to Writers in the Storm. You will be seeing more columns from me on WITS in the future. Thanks for reading!


“Read and share. I think it is critical to really read and analyze published books that are similar to what you want to write and really study them to see how the successful authors are doing it. How do the successful authors in your area develop characters? Give backstory? Create tension? Keep pacing up? POV? Voice? Develop setting?”

– Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency


“Go to writers’ conferences! Conferences are where the art of writing and the business of publishing intersect. They’re great places to network and become part of a larger writing community. And they give writers incredible access to the insights of top editors and literary agents. I’ve had the good luck of meeting several of my clients at conferences. Having that face-to-face contact can tell you so much about how you will work with someone.”

– Elizabeth Evans of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency


“One of the things I stress is persistence. When submitting query letters, persistence is key, but authors must be smart about their approach as well. Make sure you have a well-curated list of agents you are going to query. Make sure they are truly a good fit for you. Keep meticulous notes during the process. And if you get any constructive criticism, do not be defensive and shrug it off—see if you can use it to make your pitch better. So many people give up after a few rejections. Keep the process moving by honing your letter as well as your manuscript/book proposal. And stay positive! This is a hard one, I know, but bitter and frustrated authors send out that vibe and I can always sense it–in person and even in query letters. You are selling your project, so sell it with a smile on your face.”

– J.L. Stermer of N.S. Bienstock


“Be well read in your genre and know the market. Don’t give up! In particular, don’t get stuck on one project. Sometimes you need to put a book aside and start something new.”

– Jessica Alvarez of BookEnds, LLC


“The best advice I can give to an aspiring author is to get serious about your career. It’s more than a hobby. You have to be focused and educated. Join writers’ organizations or a critique group. Read, read, read and read some more in the genre you want to write in and search the web on the proper way to format a manuscript and query an agent way before you start submitting. Our agency gets 300 submissions a week. In order to stand out, your query letter has to be beyond reproach and when we ask for sample pages—they need to be A+ shape. If you’ve done your homework, you will be successful.”

– Deidre Knight of the Knight Agency


(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)

“Trust yourself. Trust your instincts.”

– Katie Shea of Donald Maass Literary


“I think that it’s important to remember that book publishing is a professional as well as creative business. Most agents are inundated with submissions. In order to stand out from the crowd, therefore, everything about your submission must be outstanding, from the way it reads to the way it looks to what you bring to the table in terms of credentials. It is increasingly important to educate yourself about the publishing industry and understand the importance of selling and marketing yourself and your ideas. If I had to name five things I’d look for in a prospective writer, they would be:

  1. Professionalism—ability to divorce your ego as much as possible from the process
  2. Sufficient understanding of books and the book market to know whether your idea works as a book-length narrative as opposed to a magazine article or short story
  3. Creativity and understanding of narrative form
  4. Willingness and ability to take editorial direction
  5. Willingness to do whatever work is necessary to make the work saleable.”

– Deborah Grosvenor of Grosvenor Literary Agency


“Woody Allen said 80% of success is just showing up. It’s different for writers. Eighty percent of success for a writer is working hard. You can’t underestimate how important it is to put in the hours. Read, write, study the business. Repeat. Day after day.”

– Howard Yoon of Ross Yoon Literary


“Read as much as you can, especially in the genre you are writing in. You need to know your market and your competition, as well as what has already been done and what new things you can bring to the table. Do not just write about what you know, because that can often be boring. Write the book you want to read, then figure out how to pitch it when you finish writing. Join a critique group so you are not writing in a vacuum. Keep revising your manuscript until it is in the best possible shape before you start querying agents, but stop sending agents revisions after a requested material has already been sent. Be courteous in your dealing with agents, as we have very good memory and will remember you when you contact us again. Be patient, be realistic, but be persistent.”

– Sandy Lu of L. Perkins Agency


“1) Don’t quit your day job! With advances getting smaller as the publishing industry doldrums continue, most authors should not expect to make a living solely by their writing.

2) Learn how to market yourself and create a platform—a website, a blog, write a column for a newspaper, etc. Publishers need authors who can bring a built-in audience to their books.

3) Write about things people want to read. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

4) I don’t believe in writer’s block. If you write every day, even if it’s a page of crap, the very act of writing (or typing) will begin to get the creative juices flowing. So sit your butt down in the chair and start hammering away at those keys. Books don’t write themselves.”

– Doug Grad of the Doug Grad Literary Agency


“Don’t take rejection personally.”

– David Dunton of Harvey Klinger, Inc.


“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. Any dream is achievable if you work hard enough.”

– Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour Agency



Chuck is excited to give away a free copy of either the brand new 2014 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS or 2014 CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET to a random commenter.

Comment within 1 week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail.

Click here for the rest of Chuck’s posts here at WITS.

Do you have any questions you’d like to ask? Please give him a warm welcome down in the comments section!

About Chuck

Chuck FW head shotChuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.

His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM

Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.

Find Chuck on Twitter and on Facebook.

photo credit: Fernando X. Sanchez via photopin cc

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