Since getting an agent all I ever get asked is how I got an agent. I'm going to be honest and say it was 90% per cent luck at the right person to read my submission at the right time. But its the other 10% that you need to concentrate on.
Firstly (and most importantly) - write a killer book, like not a book about a killer but a book that feels as complete and brilliant as it possibly can to you. Don't put your faith in an agent being able to see past the mistakes to the core of you as a writer, Why would they?
Remember that some agencies get thousands of submissions a week, the world is full of aspiring writers. Don't get your work tossed out on a technicality. get someone to help you if you struggle with any of these points below.
Grammatical errors are probably the first most jarring for someone who is reading your book - so make sure thats all good.
Punctuation - this is my downfall (you may or may not have noticed) - I have been told by a few people how bad my punctuation is. I think I am getting better - I must resist the urge to put commas everywhere. maybe because Im a rambler and I type as i think i dont really think about sentence structure. I bought a book on punctuation which i read a little bit of and then gave up, watched some documentaries. Eventually I just kind of worked it out mostly. Its not perfect but i really did try my best to make it as good as I could. I put a lot of effort into my punctuation.
Spellings - silly but I kept finding spelling mistakes - or words that were spelled correctly but were incorrect in the context i was using them and so were not flagged by any spell-checker.
Continuity - I found a massive continuity error in my book after reading it for the 300th time, I cant believe I missed it (fortunately my agent missed it too) - but if I had been reading a book other than my own then i would have totally noticed and been infuriated by the error.
READ - and re read. I could probably quote my book verbatim because I have read it several times. Over 100 times easily. i can honestly say I have found something wrong with it every single time that I read it. Over time you will find less and less mistakes. Once you have read it a few hundred times, read it aloud to yourself, that should throw up some interesting observations on your "flow", find out if it works.
FINISH YOUR BOOK - no point having three great opening chapters if your book isn't finished. What if the Agent wants to read the rest of the book? (Just hold that thought for 8 months while I attempt to finish it) Starting books is easy (I know - I've started hundreds) but finishing them is hard. Don't think like - oh but is there any point in me writing the rest if no ones going to want it. Have a little confidence in your work. Do you want to be a writer or not? finish the damn book, then submit
Although the rules are different for screenplays i would definitely say that these things all apply to that too
As far as submission goes - well this is where it gets tricky. I deliberately tried my hand at crime fiction because my favourite books and movies are thrillers and so I thought it would make sense to do that. I had never tried it before and trying to get suspense into a book was a no easy feat. I also knew that crime fiction was a hugely popular commercial area of fiction and so there was likely to be more demand for that kind of story. This may seem cynical but at the end of the day I did want to get published. I had spent years with the bitter disappointment of submitting screenplays (not very often - I don't handle rejection well ) and so I wanted to give myself the best shot possible.
So I looked for a list of agencies - I found a great comprehensive list on literary rejections website (link below) and i went on each agencies website - I looked firstly at whether they were taking submissions, secondly at what kind of submissions they were taking, then i picked my favourite ones based on my preliminary search. For each agency i carefully read the guidelines on how to submit, they are not all the same but you can bet your backside they have that submission process in place for a reason. Most of the agencies were a cover letter, a one page synopsis of roughly 500 words followed by 3 chapters of your book (this ALWAYS means the first 3 consecutive chapters - not 3 random chapters that you think are great examples of your writing skills). One agency however wanted the first 50 pages, and another the first 100 pages. Some wanted email submissions only, some only want hard copy. Its up to you to make sure what the requirements are.
I sent to 14 agencies, i made a table in "word" and listed the date I had sent the original email with the cover letter and the sample of my work. I wanted to be able to keep track of who i had sent to - the name of the contact and the date i had sent the initial correspondence. I didn't want to get rejected because i had messed up the submission process basically, it was important that I got that part right after spending so much time on doing the work of actually writing the novel.
As for the cover letter, i kept it short and concise. In fact I cut and pasted an example cover letter then substituted the relevant information in it. I am full of self doubt when writing letters to people and so I thought taking myself out of this part of the process as much as possible was a good idea. Don't overcomplicate things, keep it as sharp as possible.
Well a week after I had submitted I had already received 4 rejections when I got an email from an agent saying she liked what I had written so far and could i send the rest - this was on the Monday- so i did - On the Friday late afternoon the agent asked me if i could meet up to discuss representation. I met with the Agent the next Friday (10 days ago) and now I'm signed to an Agency. Incidentally the Agency that liked me I had addressed their submission letter to "whom it may concern" but all of the other Agents I had names for. I looked specifically within each agency for the person who dealt with crime thrillers or who i thought would be most open to my work.
I had lots of advice not to just accept the first Agency that offered me a contract but in all honesty - even though I was so excited that wasn't the decider for me - I met the agent in person and we got on really well, I was happy that they were so enthusiastic about my book that i had slaved over - trying my best to make it the best i could do. (which I really did - it may not be the best book ever written - but its the best book I could write) I had researched the Agency and knew that I would be well represented by someone who was passionate about my work. What more could i ask for?