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7 Things I've Learned Interning as a Literary Agent

Updated: Jun 12

By: Tayler Hill, intern at The Purcell Agency

7 things I learned as a literary intern

Over the past month and a half, I have had the pleasure of working with a group of talented agents at The Purcell Agency.

Since each agent acquires different genres, I have had the opportunity to work with a wide range of manuscripts, including young adult, horror, mystery, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, picture books, middle grade, memoirs, and more!

As a literary agent assistant, my job has included tasks such as query evaluation, manuscript evaluation, editing, and much more.

During my time interning, I have read A LOT of stuff. I have also learned information that, as a writer, I'm eager to share with you.

7 Things I Learned while Interning as a Literary Agent

1. Patience is key

A lot of agenting is unpaid work! This is something that blew me away. Most agents work strictly on commission. That means if I were to sell a book today, it's possible I wouldn't see that money for another 1-3 years, when that book hits the shelves and starts making royalties. In the meantime, I work five days a week, 8 hours a day, and get through twenty-five query portfolios and manuscript samples.

In addition to the slush pile of submissions/queries, agents provide editorial guidance to their clients, pitch to editors, negotiate contracts, and so much more. So, when you submit your query portfolio and manuscript, be patient. It may seem like "just ten pages'' but consider that the agent might have 1,000 other people sending them "just ten pages" in addition to all of their other work. Of course, if it's been a few months, don't hesitate to send a follow-up email. But don't expect a response in a week.

2. Your query letter matters

You know how people say, "First impressions are everything?" That definitely applies to query letters. There are a lot of things we look for when reviewing your queries.

  • Excessive spelling/grammar errors. If there are lots of errors in your letter, there's a good chance your manuscript is full of them too.

  • A show-stopping pitch. We want to see that you know your story and what makes it stand out. This doesn't mean we want to hear that this is the best story ever; we want to know what makes it unique and stand out above the rest.

  • Consistency. If you tell me in your query that Jane Doe is an enigmatic character who struggles with anxiety, I want to see that what you've written matches that. This goes for plot, character development, tone, and more.

Remember, query letters are our first impression of you and your story; take your time on them.

3. Editorial suggestions are an opportunity

This does not mean that you need to accept every single one; at the end of the day, this is your work, and you should never feel like you are sacrificing it.

But remember that we read and edit hundreds of pages a week, so we have a pretty good idea of what we're talking about. Our only goal with your manuscript is to make it the best version of itself. So, when it comes to editorial suggestions, please consider them and please take your time implementing them.

When we send you editorial guidance, it is a red flag for us when we receive the "revised" manuscript the next day because you either a) changed nothing or b) did not change enough. This shows agents what it is like to work with you.

We want to see how you implement our feedback into your work. When you don't take the time necessary to edit or struggle to take feedback, it tells us this would be a complicated partnership. And that's what this is - a partnership! When an agent signs you, it's typically for your entire career. If it will be a struggle to work with you, we will most likely pass.

4. Synopsis = Spoilers

This is similar advice to the query letter. Some may ask for a synopsis, and if they do, take your time familiarizing yourself with your story's main plot points. A synopsis isn't an entire retelling of your story; what we are looking for is your story arc and potential plot holes. It also helps us see that you are hitting your story's marks. For example, suppose it is an enemy to lovers' romance. In that case, we want to know when the seed is planted for romantic tension, what goal will thrust the character into working together, what point the character's relationship turns from "work" to "romantic, etc. Since most agents only request ten pages or the first couple of chapters, the synopsis gives a sense of your story as a whole.

Note: For picture books, an agent might not ask for a synopsis at all because of how short these manuscripts are.

5. The small details make a difference

Believe it or not, the most common mistakes I see in manuscripts are the most obvious ones. When reviewing your manuscript, look out for the following:

  • Telling instead of showing: Showing engages the reader and gives them an active role in the story's experience rather than having everything imparted to them.

  • Writing in passive voice: An active voice enables us to tighten the narrative, ensure clarity, and allow the reader to experience the moment in the present.

  • Forgetting dialogue tags: Dialogue tags, or speech tags, are essential for providing clarity, establishing tone, and conveying emotions and actions that may not be apparent from the dialogue alone. There are times you can go without them, but it needs to be an intentional choice.

6. Similar titles are a good thing

Often, agents ask for a comp title (a published book that would appeal to a similar readership as your novel). Or they may ask, "What two books would be next to yours on the shelf?" It's a red flag if you've written a picture book but your comp titles are Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Don't pick titles just because they are national bestsellers - they have to relate to your book.

They also act as "evidence" that your book would sell so take your time researching them!

7. Never give up

Out of all of these points, if you are to take only one away, take this one. The writer who fails is the one who stops writing. Never let anyone's no become your no. As writers, we are fragile creatures, and I mean that in the best way possible. We feel deeply, and we bleed those feelings on paper.

Being a writer is hard. Each rejection feels personal; it feels like we are being told we are not good enough. There are days when we feel like master craft artists, and others we want to throw in the towel because we will never make that dream of seeing our book on the shelf come true. This is wrong.

There are so many reasons a manuscript might be rejected that have nothing to do with your talent as a writer. Sometimes agents adore your work, but they aren't the best person to represent your career. Or, sometimes, we love your work, but it won't sell in the current market. The list goes on and on. But the most important thing to do is to keep writing. As cheesy as it sounds, there was a reason this dream, this desire, was planted in you. Keep writing; don't let anyone tell you no or tell you you are not good enough. And most importantly, never tell yourself you are not good enough.

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