Tuesday, 31 July 2012

How To Re-Write A Novel II

The first course is soup, a lovely liquid mass. It's contained within the bowl, but can flow anywhere. Look at the cutlery and choose the spoon furthest away from the plate - you're working from the outside inwards, remember.

The reason I say go outside inwards is it makes no difference how beautiful any individual sentence is, if the whole thing is wrong, if the story telling doesn't work, if there are problems with structure, then no one is ever going to read that perfect sentence. So, the story, the structure, the shape has to be right before you start fussing over adjectives and verbs.

At this stage I like to put the story down on index cards, one card per scene. On the card you write the setting, characters present, the purposes of the scene and the main action. This is one I wrote for an early draft of Another Woman's Husband.

Setting: Don't actually know! next page, B's house somewhere. Also, not dated.
Becca and Lily. Becca dreaming of Paul, Lily wanting to go out late clubbing. Frank rings, wants Becca to go round and help. NB Frank last mentioned/seen when? Pages ago.

And a couple from Kissing Mr Wrong...

Setting: Lorna's place. Dinner party. L's invited Marcus for Alex. Other people there NB should have been mentioned in opening scene. Skiing trip mentioned - Alex will need to find the money. Lorna offers her job in the gallery.

Setting: ????? Alex and Lorna. Alex talks about a) career, she's gone adrift b) Marcus as perfect man c) what to do about photograph. Lorna a) tells her M's going to Glasgow b) suggests Gus as possible re photograph

Obviously, as I was writing out my index cards I realised there were some problems which would need to be addressed should the scenes remain in the next draft and made notes accordingly. But that's for a future stage. Right now I'm checking that it's clear what the purposes are for each scene and how they move the story on.

When I've gone through the whole of the novel I've got a stack of index cards. I lay these out on the bed (I work a lot in bed). This is the easiest way to 'see' the novel as a whole. I'm looking for various things, all concerned with structure -

* is the 'shape' of the novel right, with exciting stuff happening throughout (the cherries - see earlier post)
* is there a good balance between active and reflective scenes (ie pace)
* do scenes flow ie have I set actions up
* are there any obvious holes - a character goes missing for a while, a plot strand is unresolved
* is the timing right? eg if someone becomes pregnant in Jan, do they have the baby in the autumn? At this stage I work out exactly when each scene takes place and note any bank holidays or other events that may affect the story.

I move scenes around, I add them, I take them away, I combine them. Anything. It's a fluid process (it's soup!). When I'm happy with the shape of it, it's on to the next course.

Monday, 30 July 2012

How To Re-Write A Novel I

Have you ever been to a posh dinner and been presented with a vast array of silverware spreading in ranks either side of your plate? Re-writing is like dealing with all those forks and spoons without getting it wrong and spilling soup down your front, or using the butter-knife to eat your peas. The simple answer is to start from the outside and work your way in.

I'm a BIG fan of rewrites. I think the quality of the rewrites is the difference between getting published or not getting published. (I can hear the planners clattering away at their keyboards about to lay into me for wasting time and not being efficient enough to do a decent piece of work first time round but hey - this is my blog, right, and what I say goes.)

The first thing to do is put the book away for as long as you can manage. The longer you leave it, the more distance you have. The more distance you have, the more you read like a disinterested reader, and the more you're able to spot problems. There's what you think you wrote and there's what you actually wrote, and if you're too close you can't see if there's a gap.

When I did this on my first novel the gap was about four months, mainly because I was incensed that the world hadn't realised what a startling work of genius had just landed on their doorstep and turned it down. Cue metaphorical flouncing out of the room and mega sulks from me. When I did finally go back I was ready to concede that the world might have a point.

So imagine spreading your starched linen napkin across your lap, gearing up for the lovely meal ahead. You've been thinking about it for ages, you've got various ideas as to what you might expect to see but you're open to whatever turns up on your plate. You know it's going to take time to get through all the courses and you're ready for that. Psychologically you're prepared for it to take as long as it needs. Ready? First course coming up...

Friday, 27 July 2012

What Makes A Good Author Event?

Today I'm chairing an event at the Penzance Literary Festival - 2.00pm to 3.00pm at the Acorn Theatre - featuring two debut novelists, Liz Fenwick (The Cornish House) and Catherine McNamara (The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy).

It'll be interesting as the books are very different, and I'm looking forward to hearing about the approaches each author has taken.  But what questions to ask?  More to the point, what makes a good event from the audience point of view?

I like it when the authors talk about things you wouldn't get from an article.  I always like factual information, and for it to be funny.  I must admit, I like it when they're dressed interestingly, although that can be distracting from what they're saying.

But over to you - what makes an author event good from your point of view?

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Starting A Novel With A Story Idea

Some people are planners and like to plot out their novels from start to finish, before they write a word.  Some are pantsers, writing into the blue without any plan, flying by the seat of their pants, and most of us will be somewhere in between.  It doesn't matter.  What does matter is that you need to start is an idea - but not just any idea.  You need a story idea.

A story idea suggests future developments.  So, you have an idea about a group of friends at a wedding - I choose  this because this is the idea I started off with.  The trouble is, a group of friends at a wedding doesn't suggest anything much in terms of story.  

You need to put in some conflict.  A group of friends at a wedding, one of whom is in love with the bride.  Immediately that suggests story development.  Who is the friend? Who is the bride?  Why does he/she love her?  Why is she marrying someone else?  Does the friend know the groom?  What is their relationship with the groom?  What is he/she going to do at the wedding?

You can recognise a good idea because it suggests lots of questions that you need to answer.  And in answering the questions, you write a novel.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

10 Types of Character Names To Avoid

It's important to take care when naming your characters.  You want the reader to be absorbed into your fictional world and anything that pulls them out of that world, even if it's only for a second or two as they ponder your punctuation, is to be avoided if you possibly can.

1. Top of the list of character names to avoid is anything which doesn't have a straightforward relationship between the spelling and the pronunciation. I struggle with many Irish names such as Aibhlinn and Caoimhe even when I know what the pronunciation is supposed to be (ave-leen and kee-va respectively).

2. Tricky to pronounce ones comes next.  The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler is one of my favourite books, but is the main character's name Macon pronounced May-con or Mack-on? I've been told that there's a city in the USA which is pronounced May-con, so assumed it had to be that rather than than the French wine growing region Mack-on, but my American students struggle with it also. And what about La-a? This is apparently pronounced Ladasha. Yeah, right.

3. At least Macon is short. Rumpelstiltskin is fine for a short fairy story, but imagine a whole novel featuring him. Worse, imagine typing out Rumpelstiltskin hundreds of times.

4. But sometimes a character needs a long name, in which case it's a good idea to abbreviate it. I once knew a woman called Anastasia Rodrigues. She called herself Birdie, which was charming. Rumpelstiltskin calling himself Rumpy would be less so.

5. Russian novels defeat many people because the characters have complicated names with patronymics and diminutives used interchangeably.  It's best to have one name consistently used per character.

6. Then there are silly, famous or punning names. In my school year was a boy called John Thomas, and girls called Catherine Parr and Fanny Blood.   I have met a child called Courtney Salmon whose parents knew the pun and still went ahead with it, which is simply mean.  That's all in real life.  None of the names would work for fiction because the reader would either snigger, or wonder if the author had realised the pun whenever they read the name.

7. Inappropriate names. Names are often era specific and class related. There aren't many working class Ruperts, or upper class Chardonnays. My grandmother was called Maud, her sisters were Edith and Ethel, her brothers Harold and Claude, all of which are splendidly Edwardian names and would work well in fiction set in that period, but would sit oddly in a contemporary piece.

8. Which leads on to similar names. I'd advise against having Maud and Claude in the same piece of writing, speaking as one who discovered the hard way that having characters called Jenny, George, John and Justine was a recipe for confusion.

9. For practical, writerly considerations I'd avoid names that don't pluralise easily - Tolkein ran into this problem with the party at the beginning of Lord of the Rings: when more than one member of the Proudfoot family were in the same room, did they become Proudfeet?

10. And finally, to end with endings, especially names ending with s - Davies, Thomas, Jones.  These can be tricky even if you're confident of your ability to use apostrophes and extra s's correctly.

PS Sorry about the recent absence, I've had some internet issues.  

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Dialogue Rules for Presentation

The first (and main) rule is Be Consistent.  In other words, while most dialogue is presented on an indented new line within quotation marks, 

   'Like this,' she said.

you might see dialogue presented with dashes and no indent

- Like this, she said.
- And here's some more, he added afterwards.

And there are other variations that I've seen, but the first version is most usual and the easiest to read.  So long as you are consistent - ie chose one method and stick with it - you'll be fine.  

When it's a new person speaking you always start on a new line.  However, if it's the same person speaking you don't always have to start on a new line, but can imbed the dialogue into the same paragraph.  

   'Have you eaten yet?' Meghan said.
   'No - what's for dinner?' Michael asked.
   'Boiled lamb and pickles,' she replied, wiping the carving knife on her apron.  The rain lashed at the windows, blown sideways by the unforgiving wind that whistled and whined down the chimney.  'Pickles are from the farmers' market.  They're good 'uns.'

Because the comment about the pickles comes attached to the previous bit of dialogue from Meghan, we assume that it's still Meghan speaking.  If it had been on a separate line, and indented (as below), we'd have assumed it was Michael talking. 

   'Have you eaten yet?' Meghan said.
   'No - what's for dinner?' Michael asked.
   'Boiled lamb and pickles,' she replied, wiping the carving knife on her apron.  The rain lashed at the windows, blown sideways by the unforgiving wind that whistled and whined down the chimney. 
   'Pickles are from the farmers' market.  They're good 'uns.'

Sometimes a character has a long, long speech and rather than have them ramble for page after page with no paragraph break, you need to give them a rest.  You indicate this by NOT closing the quotation marks on the previous paragraph of speech.

   '.. Boiled lamb and pickles, that's all we had to eat, in those days.  You youngsters don't know you're born, what with burger this and pineapple that. A juicy gherkin was as exciting as  condiments got in those days.
   'Mind you, I still remember that time I ate some piccalilli.  It was on a Tuesday, right after the farmers' market...etc etc.'
   'What fascinating stories you tell, Meghan,' Michael said, suppressing a yawn.

So if the first rule is Be Consistent, the second rule is Make It Clear.  If any reader ever has to work out who is speaking, you've failed in the dialogue presentation.  

Monday, 16 July 2012

Dialogue Is Talk With Purpose

My sister is over from abroad, and I've been spending a lot of time with her and my mother - and jolly nice it's been too, as we chat about family things past and present.  I think anyone else listening to our conversations would be bored to tears, but for us they are serving a purpose - that of cementing family bonds in a pleasant way.  They are not intended to entertain anyone else, just us.

It's a distinction writers need to bear in mind.  Dialogue, as written in fiction, has a primary function of entertaining the reader (or viewer or listener).  Let's suppose you have a scene of a mother and her two adult daughters talking about family.  It's serving a purpose, that of showing how the family bonds are being cemented.  But once that's been established - and it should happen pretty quickly, within half a page I'd have thought - the scene will need a new purpose.

The new purpose could be anything - a hidden agenda for one of the participants, preferably a hidden agenda for ALL of the participants, which they're trying to promote.  Secrets, long established grievances, revelations for the future - all suitable purposes to move the story on and make it interesting.

In real life, we're quite happy to ramble on all weekend about family stuff, but no reader/viewer/listener is going to put up with that.  Dialogue in fiction constantly needs new purposes or it won't work.  

Friday, 13 July 2012

When You Need To Tell Not Show

It must be the one writing command that everybody knows - Show, don't tell.  And it's true that showing, not telling, is usually the right response.  However, not always.  Sometimes you're better off telling rather than showing.  An example is when time passes in the story with nothing much happening.

The next two weeks passed without Amelia hearing from Godfrey.  She was at the point of forgetting him when the phone rang. 
"Hi, it's Godfrey," etc.  

The reader needs to know that two weeks have passed without Amelia hearing from Godfrey.  If we showed this, it would take quite a few pages to cover Amelia's two weeks.  Telling is more economical.

After the first kiss, all thoughts of going back were abandoned. They decided to eat at the pub, and spent the evening talking about everything and anything: pets they'd had when children, their favourite things to eat, their families - his mad mother, her dodgy brother - favourite films, bands, books. Everything Godfrey said Amelia thought was incredibly interesting, and by the time they were walking home hand in hand she was half way to being in love.

In this example, exactly what they talked about is irrelevant. What the reader needs to know is that they had an enjoyable evening talking about inconsequential stuff, that Amelia finds Godfrey fascinating and that she's half way to being in love with him. 

Similarly, it's OK to describe the room, for example, we don't have to 'show' that there's a table in there.  If the character makes a ham sandwich, then tell the reader they make a ham sandwich - you don't have to show them getting out the bread, butter and ham, then buttering the bread etc.  

Concentrate on showing the stuff that's important to the story - usually action - and tell the less important stuff.   

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Why I Wish I Could Be LIke Ernest Hemingway

Every day I do a lot of writing.  I write emails and blog posts.  I go on Twitter.  I comment on other blog posts.  I write lists.  I write down bright ideas and plans for an imaginary future.  It's all interesting, and it has to be done, but it doesn't count as word count.  The only thing that counts as word count is words written on my novel.

Why is it so easy to write the other stuff, and so hard to write our creative work?  I was reading about Hemingway and how he put his writing first, above anything, even when it wasn't getting anywhere and everyone was saying he should give up.  I find it very hard to prioritise my writing in the same way - there's always something that needs to be done first.

I've never had any inclination to shoot elephants or catch a marlin, but oh, how I wish I could be like Ernest Hemingway.  But, let's face it, that's like wishing I was a stone lighter, or could play the piano really well or speak fluent Italian.  I could do all these things - if I made them a priority.  Or as a friend once wryly commented, 'that's easy - no kids.'

And so I plod on.  And somewhere, around the cracks and crevices of real life, the book will get written, as it always has done so.  Inch by inch, not yard by yard, let alone mile by mile.  But I will get there. I wish I could be like Ernest Hemingway, so I could get there quickly, but so long as I get there, does it really matter how I do it?

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Tale of a Reluctant Reader

Today is my son's birthday - hip hip hooray!  He arrived three weeks late one hot July evening and his first six months were shaky, but once he'd settled down he became an easy child to deal with, except he wouldn't read.  He could read, that was obvious, as he would read his reading books but reading for pleasure was unknown.

What he liked were fishing catalogues.  Long car journeys were enlivened by him asking for quizzes.  I'd give him a page number, and he'd tell me what was on it.  'Pole rod, telescopic, £48' and so on.  That went on for quite a few years.  Still no books.

He liked being read to - I have read the whole of Lord of the Rings aloud to him - but he wouldn't read himself. Then one of the booksellers in Waterstones in Salisbury suggested trying this first novel which had just come out in in paperback by someone called JK Rowling. I read chapters 1, 2 and 3, but chapter 4 he did himself, and then we alternated chapters.  I was so delighted I bought the second Harry Potter book in hardback, and he read most of that himself.

But he was still a reluctant reader.  This continued throughout his school years, and into university.  I dedicated my second novel Nice Girls Do to him:  "For Nicholas, who lights up my life even if he won't read my writing".

Then, there became a change.  He read all of Evelyn Waugh, then Hemingway, then Roth.  Dickens - the works.  The reluctant reader had become the omniverous reader.

This May, he became an editor at a leading international publishing company.  It's ironic that that reluctant reader and writer now makes his living from reading and writing.  Blood will out?  I don't know, but I learnt 2 things: firstly, JK Rowling deserves every penny she has, and secondly, there's nothing like being handsold a book by a good bookseller.  

Happy Birthday, Nick.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Would You Write Differently If You Knew How People Read?

Guess what?  Not only does your e-reader give you books to read, but it can also supply data on how you read - where you stop reading, whether you go to the end, how long it takes to read.  This raises lots of questions about things like privacy, but I wondered: how will this affect writers?

If non-fiction tends to be put down after 50,000 words, will publishers only buy works of that length?  Will writers cut down on their word counts because they know 50,000 is the 'right' length, even though the subject demands it?

If we know that many readers skip the descriptions will we stop writing them?  If literary fiction is read more slowly, will even fewer literary novels get published as slow read = fewer sales.

What really worries me is that, as a writer, I don't see how you can write anything worth reading unless it comes from your heart and guts.  You have to believe, utterly, if the reader is to believe along with you.

All this data is head stuff.  It's like writing for the market, the tail wagging the dog.  The customer may always be right, but sometimes the customer doesn't know what it is they want until they see it - isn't that how Steve Jobs made Apple the company it is by giving people what they didn't know they wanted?

Many things have worried me about publishing over the last couple of years, but they've seemed all answerable by putting one's head down and just plugging away at writing the best book you can.  But this worries me the most because the best book you can write will be written with the potential customer saying 'add a bit of this, take that bit out'.

Mind you, I suppose it's like someone suggesting that they supply the ideas, you do the writing and you split the profits.  The answer (which I've never actually given, being too polite) is, go and write your own b****y book and leave me to get on with mine.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Rain, Tides and Tourists at the Seaside

It's the start of the summer season and St Ives is filling up with tourists.  This is a conversation my daughter and her friend had with some day trippers a couple of weeks ago as they strolled along the harbour front with the sea lapping at the walls...

Tourists:  What's happened?  We came last year and there was lots of sand, and the water was right out there (points out to sea).

Daughter:  Oh, it's all this rain we've been having, it's made the sea levels rise.

Tourists: Can't your government do anything?

Daughter's friend: They were going to put a plug in the bay to drain the water out, but it's been cancelled due to the recession.

Daughter: The whole town will be under water within ten years, what with global warming.

Tourists (obviously appalled):  That's dreadful.

I've never written anything based in St Ives before, but am going to have to now, just to include that conversation.  But will anyone believe that it could actually happen?

Fact is so often stranger - and funnier - than fiction which is why stuff you make up so often works better on the page than stuff that actually happened.  But somewhere there really are people who don't know about high tide and low tide...

Friday, 6 July 2012

Writing in First Person

When you begin writing, using first person often seems natural.  I struggled for a little while to get used to writing in the third person, but it's now my preferred form.  I wanted to write in third because I found it harder to write characters who weren't me when I wrote 'I did this', or 'I did that'.  I later found out that third person is more popular with readers and it's the most flexible form to use, so there are practical reasons for choosing third.

But there are plenty of reasons for choosing first too.  It's easier to capture a character's voice when you're writing in first, as everything has to be from their point of view.  Voice is particularly important in children and young adult fiction, where readers are less interested in areas such as style.  They want to feel that they are experiencing those things, living that life.  Having said that, many favourite characters, including Harry Potter, are written in third.

First person means that the reader only knows what the narrator chooses to tell them.  This allows scope for writing unreliable narrators, where part of the pleasure for readers is discovering that the narrator is fooling them (and also sometimes themselves).

Someone was recently quoted on radio as saying first person is essentially a lie as the narrator, by definition, has already experienced those events.  That can be part of the unreliable narrator, but sometimes the sense that the character is telling their story to the reader is part of the pleasure - I love the Mary Stewart trilogy about King Arthur which is narrated by Merlin.  Part of my enjoyment is in the way Merlin explains what's going on, and gives background that would be otherwise be hard to digest.  The books simply wouldn't be as good in the third person.

First person is also useful when there's an outsider narrator - Dr Watson, for example, or Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.  Dr Watson allows Sherlock Holmes to be inscrutable and brilliant without alienating readers by his arrogance, Nick Carraway observes the entwined relationships between Daisy, Gatsby and Tom in a dispassionate way that would be impossible to write about from any of the main characters view point.

So there are lots of reasons why you might choose first person.  I'm sticking to third - I don't want to slip into autobiography.  But that's my point of view.  What's yours?

Thursday, 5 July 2012

It's Good When There Aren't Short Cuts. Honestly.

I've been having a big clear out of my house and went to the local dump yesterday.  As I drove out it struck me how lucky I was not to be rich, because if I'd been rich, I wouldn't have had that experience.  I wouldn't have experienced the banter between the staff, the good humour of the people doing their recycling, the feeling of satisfaction as cardboard goes into the cardboard container, the broken chair goes into the wood container and so on.

I can't claim that it was one of the best experiences of my life, but it added to my overall feeling of pleasure and satisfaction with life but if I'd been some rich celebrity, I'd have sent some minion to do my recycling and I would have missed out.

Some years ago I had a minor celebrity in one of my classes whose agent had suggested that they 'might like to try writing a novel.'  They even had a publisher eagerly waiting for their book. 'But it's hard,'  they moaned.  'I can do 5000 words but then... and I'm really busy with other projects.'  They were genuinely trying to write, but there are some who don't bother and others who have a go but need a certain amount of help from an editor or ghost writer and don't register how far the finished product differs from their original attempts (I've got several ghost writer friends who tell me it's not unusual to see their clients on the Good Morning sofa earnestly expounding that they wrote the book themselves).

The process of writing is hard, but enjoyable.  The process of getting published is hard, and the outcome is not guaranteed, but there's a lot of enjoyment to be had on the way - meeting other writers, making a group of friends experiencing the same process, learning about the way the business operates, becoming informed about the world that produces the books we love as readers.

Would I have missed that experience?  No.  There were no short cuts available to me - no agent suggesting 'why don't you write a novel?', no publisher waiting eagerly.  I didn't know any published writers or anyone in publishing, or really anything about the business.  But I've had a lot of fun, and my pleasure in writing has been enhanced a thousand fold by the difficulties along the way.

Things that come easily are rarely worth having and success tastes all the sweeter for the struggles along the way.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Why Great Ideas Need Some Thought

A friend had a great idea.  She was going to walk round the coastline of Britain, raise money for charity as she went, and along the way write a book about her experience which would then get published to critical and commercial acclaim.  It was a great idea - what could possibly go wrong?

It was a great idea.  The only problem was someone else had already had it.  It appeared that everybody had already walked the coastline of Britain, men, women, singles, couples, groups, people on crutches, people in wheelchairs, walkers with horses, dogs, donkeys - you name it, they'd already been there and done that and written books about it.

That's the problem with great ideas - they often aren't quite as great as when you first come up with them.  I've had a great idea for a non-fiction book for ages, and finally got round to putting the proposal for it down on paper.  My agent was cautiously encouraging, an editor made vaguely positive noises.  My library buyer friend was more robust. 'Do it as fiction, and I'll buy 20 copies.  As non-fiction, as it's you, probably 4, less if it's too academic.'

Hmm.  Back to the drawing board.  I'm having a re-think about my great idea and how I approach it.  But just because my great idea has turned out to be not quite as great as I first thought, that's no reason not to write it.  All ideas need a bit more thought and research than that lightbulb flash of inspiration might suggest.  What you need is a bit of fine tuning to make them your great idea, not some more generic great idea.

After all, if you've got an idea for a romance, a thriller, a memoir, whatever, you can bet someone else has already been there and done that before.  What they haven't done is your version of it.  That's original.  That's new.  That's fresh.  And that's why you are the one to write it.

And as for my friend, she did walk around the coastline, she did raise money for charity - over £25,000 - and she did write the book about it which she self-published.  I'd call that a great achievement.  Wouldn't you?

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

If A Job's Worth Doing, It's Worth Doing Well

I'm working on yet another draft of the never ending book.  I was telling a writer friend this and they sympathetically asked what the problem was. 'The writing,' I said cheerily. 'It's not good enough.'

They were taken aback by this - they'd assumed I was going to say something like, there's a plot problem in the middle.  Something specific, rather than a general 'not good enough'.  But that's the truth - it's not good enough (yet).

I read once that Richard Curtis's script editor wife reads through his draft scripts writing NFE in the margin.  NFE stands for Not Funny Enough.  He re-wrote until there were no NFEs.

If I let something I'm not proud of go through it might get published but I will know it fell below my standards.  And readers will know it falls below my standards because they're not stupid, and word of mouth will be not so good.  Then fewer people will buy the next book.

And yes, when you read about the sales that 50 Shades of Grey is getting, despite the clunky writing, it is tempting to cut corners.  But I would know.  And readers will know.  So I'll just have to carry on re-writing until it's good enough.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Addressing An Agent

On Twitter one evening one of the agents I follow was going through their slush pile and tweeting about the various manuscripts, and why they were being put on the 'read more' or 'discard' piles.  It was scary - so many manuscripts, and so many ways to end up on the discard pile.  

High on the list was getting the spelling of the agent's first name wrong.  In other words the writer failed at the second word they wrote, never mind the rest of the letter.  Wow.  

It may sound obvious but check on what the agent's name is and how they spell it by phoning up the agency and asking.  Then address them formally as:

Dear Joe Bloggs

There are two reasons you don't include the Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms.

First, you don't know their marital status.  Take a female agent called Jane Smith.  She might be married to Mr Smith now.  She might have been married to a Mr Smith, which is the name by which she became established in publishing so continues to use, even though she's now divorced from Mr Smith and is currently single.  She might choose to use her birth name, even though she's married to Mr Jones.  

Second, you might not know what sex they are and may cause offence by addressing a man as Ms Smith.  There are lots of unisex names - Jo, Val, Chris.  And there are names that can cause confusion.  My middle name, for example, is Leslie which is the male way of spelling it (my father didn't know there Lesley was the female spelling when he registered my birth).

So check the name with the agency and use the format Dear Joe Bloggs and you won't go wrong on the second word.