Tag Archives: how to get a literary agent

The Art, and the Craft

It’s no secret that writing is hard. It’s lonely, it’s isolating, it’s like trying to swim at night in unfamiliar waters, it’s tough to get a handle on, and there’s no ‘rule book.’ If you want to do it, you’ve just got to go for it and trust that you’ll get to where you’re aiming for, eventually. You’ve got to be able to keep yourself going, and you’ve got to be able to put aside a lot in favour of writing. It takes sacrifice. It takes work. More than anything, it takes practice.

Photo Credit: aurelio.asiain via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: aurelio.asiain via Compfight cc

Sometimes it amazes me that the idea of writing as a ‘perfect’ career, or as being somehow ‘easy’, still persists. Perhaps because people are used to reading books which are polished, perfect, and seemingly effortless, they begin to think that the words formed on the page that way without authorial or editorial intervention. They have no idea of the anguish, the endless drafts, the pained emails to editors at all hours of the morning, and the self-doubt which all had to be dealt with, worked through and overcome to make it look the way they expect. None of that effort is in evidence once a book is done and ready, and that’s exactly as it should be.

I dream of writing. I have always dreamed of it. It’s what I want to do with my life, and nothing else I’ve ever done has given me half as much enjoyment. (Nothing else has been even a fraction as challenging, either, but that’s to be expected!) Many hundreds of thousands of others are just the same, and that’s a brilliant thing. I would never discourage anyone from wanting to write, but I would also be the first to say this: it’s not a cop-out, or an easy option. It’s a profession, the same as any other, and it deserves the same passion, commitment, investment and respect. If you want to write for more than the simple pleasure it brings, then pursue that goal by all means, but be prepared to work hard, often for a very long time, and often for little or no feedback or reward. This is the reality.

Recently, in discussion with someone who knows more about books and publishing than I ever will, I learned how so many people are working against themselves from day one by not approaching their writing career the same way they’d approach their non-writing career. They make slapdash, half-thought-out approaches to editors, publishers and agents; they do not work and slave and sweat over their writing until it is the absolute best they can produce; they persist in querying industry professionals with half-finished or incomplete submissions; they consider their first drafts good enough to represent them.

These mistakes are all catastrophic. They are also all completely avoidable.

What makes me sad is this: if a person really, truly wants to write, and it burns within them, and they try to take their first steps into the industry in a misguided way, they will (in all probability) receive a rejection. Perhaps more than one. This may lead the person – who may have a true talent burning within them, a pure passion, an important story – to give up, and that would be a tragedy. It takes a strong person to continue if all you’re receiving is knockback after knockback. I know. But to succeed as a writer you not only need your talent, and your interest, and your passion, and your desire to improve, and your love for words, but you also need a sensible head on your shoulders and a professional approach to life. You need to be respectful of the time, effort and expertise of agents, publishers, editors, and every other publishing industry professional you meet. You need, in short, to be able to listen to good advice when you get it, and to incorporate it into your efforts to find a home for your writing.

During this same discussion, I also learned that the publishing professional in question considers my blog to be a good source of advice and information, and they have recommended that other people read some of my articles if they are looking for help, which was a hugely encouraging and flattering thing to hear. This post in particular might be helpful if you’re new-ish around here, and are on the lookout for writerly advice, but if I could sum up what I have learned about writing over the past two years, it would be this:

TAKE YOUR TIME.

Take the time you need to write your book. Put it aside. Take the time you need to re-read it, and edit it, and perhaps have someone else look over it, and then leave it aside again. Leave it there. No! I said, leave it there. Forget it even exists. Then, pick it up again, and repeat the process. Do this as often as you can bear, but at least three times, before you even consider sending it anywhere or submitting it to anyone. Do your research into agents, publishers and editors. Check that they accept the sort of work you’re writing. When you do approach them, do it respectfully and professionally. Follow their guidelines. Do not be arrogant. Do not assume that you know better than they do. Then, be patient as you wait for their reply.

If you’re self-publishing, a lot of the same rules apply. Take your time over your work, primarily. Write the best book you can, and then do a lot of research into the best platform, the best formatting style, the best pricing structure, the best editorial and design work, before you put your writing anywhere near the eyes of other people. If not, barring a miracle, you’ll wish you had when you see your sales figures.

There is no rush. Writers are not in a race with one another. You owe it to yourself to put your best work forward, and let it speak for you. The craft of writing is one thing – the ability to make sentences which sing, and images which linger in the mind, and characters who leap off the page – and it’s an important first step. But the art of being a writer – including but not limited to the ability to be professional, patient, organised, respectful, willing to learn and utterly committed to producing the best work you’re capable of – is just as important. People tend to forget that, and expect their talent to carry them through. For some lucky individuals, perhaps this works. For the rest of us? My advice is: learn how to work as a writer the same way you’d work at anything else, and you’ll be on the right track.

How I got my Agent

This darling lady sums up exactly how it feels to get that 'yes!' you've been waiting for all your life. Image: blog.diversitynursing.com

This darling lady sums up exactly how it feels to get that ‘yes!’ you’ve been waiting for all your life.
Image: blog.diversitynursing.com

I’ve been hoping for the chance to write a blog post like this for a long, long time. Back in August 2012, when Clockwatching… kicked off and my writing career began in earnest, I barely dreamt that I’d ever get here; at the same time, if someone had told me that it would take almost two years, I might have been downhearted.

Looking back now, two years doesn’t seem so long. It seems like just the right length of time, in fact. I had, and still have, a lot to learn about writing and pitching and polishing my work, and two years is long enough to have given me a chance to grow as a writer but not quite long enough to have made me give up hope completely.

It may take a while to find an agent because – like me – you might not be ready for one the first time you query. You might have potential, and talent, and the drive to work hard (all necessary), but you might not be ready, all the same. But the good news is: all you need to get there is time and the courage to never give up, and the urge to keep writing until you find the book, the one which you know, in your heart, is the best work you can do at that time.

Not easy. But not undo-able, either.

I'm a-gonna do this...  Image: scarpzpaintball.com

I’m a-gonna do this…
Image: scarpzpaintball.com

So, I have an agent. I was able to make the official announcement on Friday last (Friday 13th, funnily enough), and it was so exciting that I managed to make a total grammatical mess of the Tweet in which I broke the news:

 

Gaining an agent doesn’t automatically make you a sparkling wordsmith in all social occasions, is what I think we can all learn from this.

Anyway. I am extremely pleased to have secured Polly Nolan, of the fabulous Greenhouse Literary Agency, as my agent. Polly hasn’t been an agent for long, but she has (and continues to have) a long and distinguished career in publishing, specifically children’s and YA publishing, and this is why I wanted to query her in the first place.

So, how did I manage to get her attention? Well. The old-fashioned way, of course.

I first contacted her almost exactly a year ago, in June of 2013, with a query for my book Eldritch. She was interested enough to read the whole thing, and her feedback was good – though ultimately it wasn’t something she felt comfortable representing. She did say, in one of our email exchanges, that I should go ahead and query Eldritch elsewhere, and that – in a strange way – gave me confidence. ‘It’s not for her,’ I told myself. ‘But she doesn’t think it’s a terrible effort.’ She gave me some excellent pointers as to how to make the book better, and so I’m hopeful that, one day, the world will see a version of Eldritch that isn’t quite how I’d imagined it when I first came up with the idea, but vastly better.

I pitched a second book to her in the course of another email exchange (my heart in my mouth as I did so – such audacity!), and she requested the full MS. This book was Tider, which she also read and liked, but which left her lukewarm overall. ‘You’re almost there, but not quite. You can write, but it’s missing something,’ was the feedback from this e-chat. We discussed whether it was my plotting, or my pacing – both of which can be worked on and practised, by the way, so if this is something you have trouble with do not give up hope – and eventually I told her I’d just finished drafting another book. ‘It’s my NaNoWriMo novel,’ I told her. ‘I’m quite fond of it. Would you like to take a look?’

That was in March. The book, of course, was Emmeline. And the rest (just bear with me; I’ve always wanted to use this phrase in a context like this one) was history.

Of course, I had also entered Emmeline into several competitions, one of which was the ‘Date with an Agent’ event. There, I gained fantastic and enthusiastic feedback from Sallyanne Sweeney, another stellar agent; that was a huge boost, and made me realise that my little story really did have potential. It had appealed to two extremely knowledgeable ‘beta’ readers, and so – even though I found it hard to get my brain around it – the story had to be good.

But while it’s good, it’s not perfect. Polly had suggestions, as did Sallyanne, and now that I’ve signed with Polly we’re about to begin the editorial process, whereupon she’ll send it to me covered with red ink and exclamation marks (and possibly drops of her own blood), and I’ll have to fix it. Between the two of us, we’ll whip the story into as good a shape as we can manage, and then it’ll be time for querying again – except, this time, it’ll be publishers who are being approached, and I’ll have a powerhouse like Polly in my corner.

And then, with any luck, another huge ‘yes’ will be in my future – the ‘yes’ which says: Your book is going to be on shelves, and downloaded to e-readers, and on sale alongside the heroes you’ve worshipped all your life, and available to order, and given to children as a Christmas present or a birthday gift, and inscribed (like I used to do as a girl) with their full name, and it will be read. Hopefully, it will be loved and cherished and will eventually fall apart from use, dog-eared and creased from being shoved into backpacks and too-tight shelves and passed from hand to hand. If you’re lucky, it will speak to its readers’ hearts, and they will remember it all their lives.

This is a dream I now feel able to indulge myself in, for I am one step closer to it.

So, if you are currently querying agents, I finally feel able to offer some real advice, based on experience.

1. Never give up. If you get a knockback, take it on the chin and keep going. You’re going to get a lot of rejections – either no reply at all, or a cursory ‘stock’ reply, or a personalised one which suggests that your submission has actually been read (which is very positive) – and each one should make you more determined.

2. Never be too afraid to query. My heart was in my mouth as I pitched Tider in an email about Eldritch; I almost didn’t do it, as I feared it was too ‘cheeky’. If you have an agent’s ear, and you are involved in an email exchange with them – because if they’re interested enough to engage with you about your writing, you should be hugely encouraged – then try telling them what else you’re working on, in case it sparks their attention. It also helps them to know that you’re planning for the future and getting on with more work while you’re waiting for your queries to bear fruit.

3. Always be ultra-professional in your queries. Think business letter, think formal address (at least, at first), think ‘job application’ – for, in essence, that’s what it is. I really can’t stress this enough. From what I’ve heard, a lot of people who query seem to forget that they’re trying to enter into a professional relationship. Sending emails from an address like ‘glitterboyunicornbreath at fuzzypants dot com’ and peppering it with .gifs is likely to get it deleted, even if the book you’ve written is genius. Be warned!

4. Always query more than one agent at a time, because they expect you to. Be upfront about things like requests for the full MS, though, or expressions of interest: if this happens, always tell the other agents to whom you’ve submitted a query. Always remember politeness and professional behaviour.

5. There are no ‘tricks’. There is nothing you can do to increase your chances of getting an agent besides writing the best book you can, choosing an agent or agents who represent the sort of work you’ve doing, and being brave enough to submit it. Oh, and being patient, of course.

So, what are you waiting for?