Finding a Literary Agent

This is how I joined the slush pile and found an agent, based on some advice I followed, and some I shrugged at because I couldn’t see the point.

I am not suggesting anyone ignores advice because it worked for me. I knew nothing. I was lucky.

I’ve never studied creative writing, and when I started out I knew only one writer, who wasn’t writing in my genre. I wasn’t even on twitter! There was so much conflicting advice online, much of it from the US whose querying system is a little different.  I soaked it all up, then planned my own Find An Agent campaign. I think I succeeded mostly due to luck, but grit and willingness to learn played a part. I read a lot of posts like this, so wanted to add my own.

‘Edit before submitting.’ YES

The first draft of The Breathing Sea took around 6 weeks to draft and over 8 months to edit. I wrote the book as an experiment to see if I could, then loved writing it, so edited because I wanted to make it good. I bought writing craft books and devoured blog posts by authors I respected. Through trial and error I developed an editing method (whole other blog post). Then I polished every word of my sample pages over and over.

‘Don’t query too soon.’ Shrug.

It was impossible to know what was too soon. I queried agents 10 months after I started writing my first ever book. On 22nd August 2013. The MS hadn’t been properly critiqued; I didn’t know what beta readers were. I couldn’t afford a professional editing service. It was probably too soon, but I couldn’t have known that, then. You learn by trying. Luckily it worked out.

‘Only submit to agents who represent your genre.’ YES

I didn’t know any writers in my genre to ask for their opinions or recommendations. So I read the whole Writers and Artists yearbook 2013 then submitted to all of the 21 agents who represented YA. A few sounded like a great fit for my book on their website bios, and a few were in the acknowledgements in my favorite books, so I submitted to those first.

‘Send a couple of queries at a time, carefully personalized.’ Shrug.

I sent my MS out in batches of 6 every 3 weeks. I couldn’t see the point in waiting. I had no clue how to tell which agents were right for me. I felt awkward waxing lyrical about their lists and trying to compare myself to their other authors, so I kept my cover letter short and focused on my book. I think you can only tell if an agent is right for you when you meet them.

‘Follow agent submission guidelines.’ YES

Submitting is not a time to break rules or attempt to stand out. I followed submission guidelines rigorously. I hated the idea of agents rejecting me before they had even read my pages.

‘More than 10 rejections means the book isn’t good enough.’ Shrug

It only ever takes one person to love your work and it is completely subjective. Out of 21 submissions 3 agents didn’t respond. I received 15 form rejections and 2 personalised rejections. I received 1 full request but 3 weeks later the full manuscript was rejected. Form rejections always sting, but it was nothing like publisher rejections. Being so new, my expectations were low. I started querying in August, by January that first round was over. A few agents had seen a glint of potential, it was enough to keep me going.

‘Work on another project whilst submitting.’ YES

I wanted to be a writer, so I kept writing. I drafted a weird and overly complex ghost story over that first rejection riddled submission. It needs reworking and might never see the light of day. I’m more relaxed about taking breaks now, but at the time, having another project kept me going.

‘Don’t ask agents to give feedback – they don’t have time.’ Shrug.

I didn’t expect agents to give feedback, it isn’t their job. Now I have an agent I really appreciate how busy they are. But if an agent took the time to give a personal comment, or read my whole manuscript it seemed silly not to ask. I thirsted for industry feedback. A very polite ‘any feedback you could give me would be hugely appreciated’ resulted in a few useful lines from one agent and a whole conversation over email with the assistant of the agent who rejected the full. That was incredibly generous of her. It was only one person’s opinion, but it was astute. Professional . It led to a rethink, followed by a rewrite. I asked if she would be interested in seeing the book again after substantial edits. She said yes. When she rejected a second time I was sure to thank her and tell her how important her initial feedback had been. She said that made her day.

‘Thank everyone.’ ALWAYS AND FOREVER YES

The smallest kindness or act of faith can make the biggest difference.

‘Don’t query the same agent twice.’ Shrug.

I may get in trouble with agents here. After the first submission campaign, during January 2013 I rewrote the book. It was a hard structural rewrite. I cut 20K and scrapped the first 10K. I gave it a new title, for good luck. Breathing Sea was born. In February I resubmitted to some of the same agents and some new agents – different people at the same agencies. I sent 2 batches of 8 submissions. In my letter I mentioned that the MS had been rewritten after industry feedback. The agent who I am with now was the first to ask for the full manuscript at the beginning of March.

‘Do not give exclusives.’ YES (I mean don’t)

Only one agent requested an exclusive and it was too late, the full manuscript was already out. Considering the months an agent might take to read, giving exclusivity is not feasible if you want to be agented within the decade.

‘Agents don’t need to know if you have other interest. Never nudge.’ Shrug.

I nudged all agents I’d submitted to when one agent requested the full. I know some agents say don’t do this, but my goal was to obtain the right representation for me and my book. That just seemed more likely if I had offers from more than one agent so I could meet them and compare. This was a best-case scenario and I didn’t expect it to happen, but it did happen. At one point I had 12 agents reading the full. Some declined. I met 5 agents, they all offered representation.

Lastly: ‘Go with your gut.’ YES

I didn’t find this useful advice at the time. How can you find your wise and profound gut instinct when your gut is filled with flapping butterfly wings? But I’m learning to zone out the noise. If something feels wrong or off, it generally is.

I often revisit that time in the slush pile. It wasn’t long, but it was intense. I take myself back there when I read something stunning and feel the imposter syndrome sucking at my soul, or when I’m staring at what everyone else is doing, smushing my nose too hard against the glass, or when it’s all so nerve-wracking and tiring and difficult.

Publishing a book takes an army, but I navigated the slush stage completely by myself — and despite the luck involved — I’ll always be proud of that.

Good luck if you are currently in the slush pile. Any comments or questions, I’d love to hear from you. If you want to hear from me every month or so, then please sign up to my newsletter.

6 Comments

  1. Really good insight into a difficult process! Xxx

    • admin

      May 9, 2017 at 9:40 pm

      Thank you, lovely. Luckily for me it was quite frenetic, but not drawn out. Unlike finding a publisher!

  2. Great journey. You’re right; reading posts like this makes it seem less unattainable – still reading and feeling inspired but hopefully one day I might inspire others with my own ‘journey’ story 🙂 (It won’t be pretty and a pubic hair may be involved – don’t ask) 😉

    • admin

      June 7, 2017 at 8:55 pm

      Thank you and good luck. It felt completely unattainable for me too! Never give up 🙂

  3. Thank you for such a wonderful post. I’m currently in a slush pile or two, and have had 2 personalised rejections with advice, which I have followed and resubmitted one as requested. I hope one day, to be as lucky as you!

    • admin

      June 7, 2017 at 8:56 pm

      That’s a huge vote of confidence, you will get there (if you haven’t already).

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