Tag Archives: querying an agent

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?

 

 

Take Cover!

One of the most important hurdles any hopeful writer needs to cross is that of the cover letter, which is sent along with their query when they are making contact with a literary agent, or publisher, or even when entering some writing competitions. They have a reputation for being terrifying, and disgustingly difficult, and deliberately tricksy, and not at all nice, and I am here today to dispel all those myths.

Writing cover letters is an art. It therefore follows that, like any art, the writing of the humble cover letter can be honed and improved upon until it’s as near to perfect as possible. It’s not something which is only do-able by the chosen few; it’s not something which is beyond you because you’re a certain age, or from a particular place, or are writing in a particular style, or the moon is in Aquarius, or whatever.

Writing cover letters is an opportunity. It’s a showcase. It’s a perfect first meeting – made perfect, perhaps, by the fact that you’re not physically there. Your letter is your envoy, so to speak. It represents the best of you – or, at least, it should.

It lets you avoid situations like this. Image: sarahcruz423.blogspot.com

It lets you avoid situations like this.
Image: sarahcruz423.blogspot.com

None of this means that writing cover letters is easy. It’s not. But it is something that can be worked on, and it’s something which has a few generally agreed-upon rules, all of which are worth knowing.

First: I’ve seen it written in several places that the best way to make your initial contact with an agent is to place a ‘phone call to their office, and inquire politely whether they’d like to receive your query. I think I can safely say that this is bunkum. Not the ‘polite inquiry’ bit – that’s very important – but the ‘placing a call’ bit. In general, agents don’t like to be ‘phoned. They are busy. They need to concentrate, all the time. Ringing telephones are not their friend. So, don’t ring them.

Image: steveweins.com

Image: steveweins.com

Plus, who likes to be asked whether they’d like to be asked something? It wastes time.

The most important thing you can do when preparing a query is: do your research. Know who you’re submitting your work to, the sort of book they normally represent, their established authors, and – if you’re very lucky – the ‘wishlist’ of manuscripts which they’d like to see. Some agents will have their wishlist on their websites, and some will have written it in a blog post, and some will have mentioned it on Twitter, and some won’t have said a peep about it anywhere. Even if you can’t find a wishlist, most agencies have a comprehensive website where you can learn all about your chosen agent, including what they like to represent and whether they’re open for queries at any particular time – because, of course, it’s important to query only when the agent or agency is open to inquiries. It’s no good to waste time and energy on a fruitless task, after all.

Second; Prepare your query, which – as well as your cover letter, of which more below – includes your synopsis and/or pitch, and your sample chapters. Always follow the guidelines as set out on the agency’s webpage, or in their listing in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, or wherever you first came upon their name. If they want 500 words, send 500 words. If they want five chapters, then send that. If they want the first, fifth, tenth and twentieth chapters, then send those. Do not assume you know better than the agency and decide to cherry-pick your favourite chapters, or send more (or less) material than requested because it ‘looks better’. Just, for Pete’s sake, do what you’re told.

Spend time over this query. Tailor it specifically for each agency. Do not adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy. Make every query unique.

Third: Prepare the cover letter.

The first thing to think about is: what is a cover letter for?

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

It’s designed to give an agent an insight into a few things, namely: your ability to write (yes, even your cover letter is a showcase for your talent), your ability to sell yourself and your product, your personality and how it might fit with theirs, or the ethos of the agency, and your level of confidence in what you’re doing. So, your humble cover letter has to wear a lot of hats.

Tip 1: Never address a cover letter to ‘Dear Agent’. You can guarantee it will become a target for dart practice if you do this. ‘Dear Ms. Whomever’ or ‘Dear Mr. Whomever’ is good; perhaps you prefer to address people by their first name. Either way, know the person to whom you are writing. Do not write them a cover letter which sounds like it came out of a spambot.

Tip 2: Avoid writing things like: ‘Your lucky day has come!’ or ‘Boy, is this going to make your career!’ But, of course, you know that anyway. Right?

Tip 3: Be brief, but comprehensive. Show that you have a cool, confident mastery of language. Do not apologise for taking up their time, or for having the temerity to bother them with your query. Do not belittle yourself, but – of course – do not brag, either. If you’ve won some prizes, simply mention the fact. If you’ve placed in competitions, say so but don’t dwell on it. Don’t wax lyrical.

Tip 4: Follow a simple structure. Introductory paragraph, followed by a paragraph about your book – or, in other words, a pitch – and finally, a short paragraph about yourself.

Something like this, maybe:

‘Dear Ms. Molloy,

I attach the first five pages of my novel, ‘Murder at Whateley Place’, for your consideration. I felt you, in particular, might like to take a look at my work because of your interest in crime fiction, and the fact that you have placed work for clients such as Mr. So-and-so. At 85,000 words, the book is complete.

When Scarlett Stuart, an heiress with more sense than money, disappears the night before her wedding, all eyes turn to Detective Simon Catalan. Scarlett’s daybook shows that she had an appointment with Catalan in his offices at Whateley Place on the afternoon of her disappearance, so why does the great detective deny all knowledge of her existence? What is the connection between Scarlett’s fiancé and Catalan – and why is Catalan determined to make sure Scarlett is never found? ‘Murder at Whateley Place’ is a detective potboiler in the tradition of Conan Doyle and E.M. James, and should appeal to lovers of period fiction and mystery writing in equal measure.

I am a graduate of PoshSnobbery University, where I took an MA degree in Creative Writing. I have had several short stories published in national and international journals, and my non-fiction writing appears in a regular column with my local paper, the Brobdignag Gazette. I have placed in several writing competitions including last year’s Fish Prize for Flash Fiction and the Bridport Prize in 2008. Since completing ‘Murder at Whateley Place’, I have begun a new project, which is a supernatural-tinged thriller set in medieval Bristol.

I would be happy to supply the full MS of ‘Murder at Whateley Place’ should you require it, and I would like to thank you most sincerely for your time.

Best wishes/Kind regards/Yours sincerely,

Your name.’

Some things to consider: Mention your interests/qualifications/life experiences only if they have a direct bearing on your writing. Being a champion knitter is wonderful, but unless you’ve written a book about yarn it shouldn’t be in your cover letter. If you have no degrees, experience, or published work, that’s absolutely fine – you can talk instead about your professional life and other interests, so long as it’s brief. It’s always good to mention that you’ve moved on to a new project, and what it’s about – agents like a long view of a potential client’s career. Always specify that the book is complete (because, of course, you shouldn’t be querying it otherwise), and be clear about genre, title and wordcount. It’s usually best to adopt a cool, professional tone throughout, even if writing the letter makes you look like this:

Image: machohombresports.com

Image: machohombresports.com

And – finally – as I said in my post about synopses, this is all based on my own experience, and may not suit everyone. If you’ve queried (particularly if you’ve been successful!) and you’d like to weigh in on whether these tips are any good, or not, I’d love to hear from you.

The essential message is this: keep writing, keep querying, keep believing, and never give up hope. And let me know how you get on!