How to get a literary agent without a finished manuscript

I was at asked to give a talk at a writing circle recently, and I happily obliged. Please forgive me if this sounds horrible, but those in attendance were of the same demographic I see at so many of these things: retired (or near it), mostly women, upper middle class, bored, know everything.

I had my little chat, and then there was supposed to be a Q&A – the usual. But the Qs were statements. The audience told me again and again my responses were incorrect, or just plain not fair.

There was one conversation, well not a conversation between myself and a person in the audience, but a one-sided diatribe by an emphatic woman in hemp shoes and talking over me when I tried to correct her.

It went like this:

Hempy: I have a friend who’s gotten an agent, and she doesn’t have a manuscript finished…

Me: That’s unusual, is it her second book?

Hempy: No she’s never written a book before, but an agent picked her up. You said not to approach agents without a finished product.

Me: I wouldn’t recommend…

Hempy: I don’t know why we’re sitting here. (To the room, said like she’s asking them to stand.) We’re good enough, we should just start submitting to agents.

Me: Really, don’t submit an unfinished…

Hempy: But why? It must be better to not have it finished, then the agent can work with you while you write.

Me: An agent isn’t a writing teacher.

Hempy: My friend’s agent is editing it and working with her as she writes, like the old style of publishing.

Me: That’s not the old style of publishing…

Hempy: If agents want us, they’ve got to learn to work with us.

Me: Complete your manuscript before…

Hempy: Right. I say we just star submitting to agents what we have. Notes, outlines. My friend…

Me: Who is your friend’s agent?

Needless to say, I’d never heard of this person, and, with a little further digging, I discovered the backstory to this agent who takes unfinished manuscripts. As it turns out, this friend was ‘writing a novel’ but–before finishing it–shopped it around. Surprise, surprise, no one was interested. So after much complaining to any one who would listen, she happened upon someone who said, ‘Oh, that’s not fair. How hard could it be to be an agent.? I like to read, so I know what’s good. I’ll be your agent.’

Short version, the woman doesn’t have an agent, she has an idiot.

So, let me lay this all out for you. Our agency literally receives hundreds of manuscripts a month for the slush pile. Do I have time to find this spark of talent in a single one that’s not finished? Do I decide to spend my time helping this person write their manuscript, despite the fact they have nothing completed, when I’ve got a stack of completed novels with that same spark? Short answer. No.

Essentially, why would I gamble my time and energy on something that may never be finished (or very good for that matter) when I literally have thousands more in the slush pile that are finished and show genuine dedication, promise and talent? Why?

Why are you so special? Are you the next Bard, will your work will be read and debated for generations? Are you so amazing that I should cast all reason aside for the hope of being the Pound to your Eliot? If you’re saying ‘yes’ to any of this, you need a therapist, not an agent.

If you are still insistent that you know someone who got and agent (or a publisher for that matter) before finishing their manuscripts, I can give you four reasons why it happened:

1) They don’t have an agent. See above.
2) They either know the agent (or publisher) personally (example, your cousin is an agent), or you have been vouched for by someone who knows an agent. For example, I have heard of Lecturers on creative writing MAs referring a particularly brilliant student to an agent, despite a half completed manuscript. I’ve heard that this was how Zadie Smith got White Teeth published, or it could be a rumour. I don’t know.
3) They themselves are famous.
4) They have several unpublished novels under their belt, and one moderately selling self published novel, and have won several awards.

So, let me say it again. Do not submit without finishing your novel first.

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One response to “How to get a literary agent without a finished manuscript

  1. I have just realised I should make an adjustment to the above post. Nonfiction and essay collections need not be completed before submitting to an agent or publisher.

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