In the run up to Christmas, the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency will be posting an entry from one of our authors each day, offering anything from writing tips and their inspiration, to Christmas memories and their wishes for the year to come.


Holly Bourne

How to get an agent under your Christmas tree

Mariah Carey wants ‘you’ – whoever that is. Lots of gappy-mouthed children want their two front teeth… But, if you’re an unpublished writer, all you want for Christmas is a literary agent under your tree or in your stocking. Though not literally, that would be weird for everyone.

So how can you make that wish come true within the Twelve Days of Christmas? Here are my top tips.

Step one: Have you actually written a book?

Nope? Then why are you reading this please? That is called procrastination, and it ain’t gonna help you get an agent. Go back to your room/coffee shop and put words upon words onto a page until it is finished.

Step two: Have you edited the book?

And this doesn’t mean reading it back once, thinking, “I’m a frickin’ genius – watch out JK Rowling, I’m buying the castle next door’. Read the entire book and make notes about every tiny part of the plot that isn’t perfect. Then mend it. Then read the entire book again – sentence by agonising sentence – making every word beg to stay on the page.

Step three: Do you know what genre your book is?

But my book is unique! But my book crosses several genres! But my book is so unfathomably intellectual it transcends the very concept of genres! (Tip: that means it’s a ‘literary’ novel). Sorry, but you need to put your book in a box. Agents and publishers like boxes.

Step four: Get your grubby hands on a copy of the Artists and Writers Yearbook…

… and read it with a magnifying glass, notepad and pen. ALL THE ANSWERS are in there. How to write covering letters, how to write synopses, how to approach agents – they are telling you what to do! They want to publish your amazing book! That is why they are telling you.

Step five: Circle every agent in the book that represents your genre

Don’t even think about sending your manuscript to an agent who doesn’t. You are just asking for a big fat whacking rejection and an evening clutching it to your ribcage, sobbing ‘but whhhhhy?’ Make a list of all the agents representing your genre – this is now your longlist.

Step six: Start researching your longlist

Get online and look at every single agent you’ve listed. Look at the other authors and books they represent. See any you like? Hate them all? Use this to make a shortlist of your favourite agents. Start with about five.

Step seven: Stalk the almighty hell out of your agent shortlist

Short of hanging outside their office with a pair of binoculars, research your top five thoroughly. Get on their Twitter accounts and see if they seem ‘nice’ – the agent/author partnership needs to be a friendship. If you go on their Twitter and think ‘what an idiot’, it’s likely you won’t mesh. Go on their website, take a look at their blog. Wait – you’re doing this right now… Well done – you are already on step seven. Go you!

Step eight: Write your synopsis

What is your book about? Can you explain that to people in one line? No? You need to. Your entire book needs to fit onto a single page of A4 paper. This can take weeks. You will most certainly cry during this process. It will be worth it.

Step nine: Write your covering letter

Make each one personal. Tell them why you’ve picked them as an agent. Tell them why you’re interesting and qualified to write a book. Be confident but don’t stray into crazy narcissistic territory (“I think this is better than War and Peace”). Don’t tell them your mum loved it. Of course she did, she squeezed you out of her body – she is biased.

Step ten: Follow the agent’s submission guidelines to the letter

If they ask for the first three chapters, only send them that. If they ask for the first 10,000 words, only send them that. If they ask you for Times New Roman, 11pt, with double spacing, make the tweaks. If they ask you for money first… run in the opposite direction.

Step eleven: Proofread your submission until words lose all meaning

You are showcasing your writing – get the basics right. Punctuation, grammar, syntax – make every word melt into the agent’s eyeballs with bliss. You’ve come so far, don’t mess it up with a ‘your’ ‘you’re’ muddle.

Step twelve: Send it off and wait patiently

Don’t ring them up, demanding ‘have you got it yet?’ Send, wait, and prepare to lose the next weeks of your life giving yourself RSI by repeatedly hitting the refresh button on your email.

Holly Bourne‘s debut novel SOULMATES is out now. Translation rights have been sold in the Netherlands, Brazil, Germany, Poland, Spain and Turkey. 

SOULMATES by Holly Bourne