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Thursday, 29 October 2015

How I Got My Literary Agent - Part 1

When I was in the querying trenches last year I spent many hours trawling the internet for success stories: 'How I got My Agent' posts on blogs, articles explaining the process, blah, blah, blah. Each one I read either gave me hope, or sent me into a spiral of despair. Either way, I couldn't help myself - I had to know what to expect.

But, nothing prepares you for the reality of the process. The waiting. Oh, dear God, the waiting.

Now, patience has always been an issue for me. And that is a problem if you are aspiring to become a published writer. Because there is no getting around the fact that whilst you do hear of stories where a writer has got an agent and a publishing deal within a week - these are rare.

However, despite having read other blog posts where the author clearly states - be patient, don't send your work out too early, be prepared for the long-haul - I actually pretty much ignored that advice. And it cost me a few lost opportunities. Possibly ones that would've ultimately been dead ends anyway, but I'll never know.

Having 'finished' my first ever novel in July 2014 - I set about 'polishing' it. I had some friends read it, had a few keen, aspiring writers in my writing group read it and give critique - and altered my manuscript with their feedback in mind. I thought that was good enough. I then put together my submission package: cover letter, synopsis and first three chapters (or whatever the agency had specifically requested in their guidelines) and sent it out to my chosen agents. Then I waited.

I didn't wait too long for the first rejection. Same day in fact. "Thanks for thinking of me. I've had a look but it doesn't feel right for my list." OK. Not a bad rejection, I thought. But then when nine more appeared in my inbox in the weeks and months that followed, my spirits dipped. In that first batch of ten I did get an encouraging, "I'd be happy to see anything else you write in this area", so that was a light at the end of the tunnel. But I'd read that if you don't get any requests for your full manuscript there is something wrong - either with the story itself, or your submission package.

It turns out, there were issues with both of these things for me.

In my eagerness to get my manuscript out there, I'd failed to write a compelling cover letter, and more importantly, sent my manuscript out before it was really ready.

I went back to searching the internet for guidance on cover letters and completely rewrote mine. It's very important to tailor the letter for the agent you are querying. Take time to find out about them, make the letter personal to them, create a good hook/elevator pitch, write an interesting paragraph about your story, tell the agent why you are the one to write this, give a brief writing biography, and above all FOLLOW THEIR GUIDELINES. Get the submission package right, and you're halfway there. Of course, a good cover letter will only get an agent's interest, it won't make them love your work. Whilst there are many reason's an agent won't take on a new client, if your sample material isn't well written you'll get a rejection. It's simple.

With my basic cover letter sorted I took another look at my manuscript. Having given up my job I didn't have much money in order to have it professionally edited. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised I had to do something to get it into better shape if I was to stand a chance of getting to the next stage. I did a lot of research, found some good services, including the The Writers' Workshop who offered great editing packages, but I hesitated due to my lack of funds. Then I hit the jackpot...

Twitter is an amazing place - I love it. I've found a lot of very supportive writers there, some I consider my friends despite not having met them (yet). And it was here that I found Kate Foster. At the time, Kate was nearing qualification and was offering her editing services free. Wow - now there was a stroke of luck! I contacted Kate and she agreed to take my manuscript and help me get it into shape. She was amazing. By the end of October that year I felt much more positive. Not only that, but confident that my manuscript was now as good as it could be.

So, at the beginning of November I chose nine agents (and two publishers) to send my brand new, shiny submission package to.

Out of the eleven submissions I received two personalised rejections, both of which had some really positive things to say, and FIVE full manuscript requests. I was bloody elated I can tell you.

Of course, the waiting game became unbearable once I knew I had my full manuscript in the hands of agents. The constant refreshing of emails, the Twitter-stalking, the daily "please let it be today I hear something" mantra - all the things I never thought I'd do, made life a bit of a nightmare for my family and writing group. However, they are the ones who kept me going, as well as my online writer friends who were lovely enough to encourage, support and answer my questions about the process.

Anyway, during that time I continued to submit my novel to more agents to prevent me going crazy waiting for the responses. More rejections followed, but because I'd had the full requests and was confident in my approach, these were easier to take. My first rejection of the full manuscript came in the April 2015 - five months after the initial request. It hurt. Badly. But she had some great feedback which I could take forward. I had a lovely email from the editor of a small press saying he was taking my manuscript to the acquisition meeting, which was brilliant news, and another small press then requested the full. So amongst the rejections there was also some positives.

Now, just to muddy the waters, I had begun to write my next novel once my first was out and about and in January 2014 I saw that the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger Award was open for submissions. I decided to enter my new novel as I thought it was more 'crimey' than my first. So I sent the first 3000 words and in May I was longlisted. See previous blog post Here for all the details. This was a totally amazing experience and I can now look back and know that it was the reason I got my agent.

Anyway, back to the story - my second 'rejection' (although this was a different sort) came in May. Now, this was from the agent that had been the first to request my full manuscript back in November 2014 - and it was a mixed rejection. I had no idea how to handle it - because although she had said it was promising and in 'some ways' impressive, she didn't like my main character (pretty damning!) and felt the novel to be too bleak. So, gutting really - but... BUT... she said she'd be happy to talk to me about me and my writing or to see anything else I might write in this area. Wow. I didn't know whether to be sad or elated, so I chose elated. This was big. Huge. Someone was interested enough to want to TALK to me!

I took a while to reply, had to wait for the shaking to subside.

Then I told her about my second, as yet unfinished novel, that had been longlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger. She came straight back to me asking to see this work-in-progress, and said we'd then "take it from there". I think I was almost sick with excitement and nerves.

I sent the first 15,000 words of 'Portrayal' - and the next day I had an email.

She didn't have the same reservations as she'd had for my first novel - and was keen to meet up.

So, a trip to London was planned...

More in part two!

Thanks for reading :)


  1. This is such an interesting post, Samantha. As I'm just coming to the end of draft 1 of novel 1, I can only imagine how hard it must have been for you to be patient. However, your patience paid off - congratulations on getting your agent! Brilliant news. I'm looking forward to reading part 2 now and finding out all about that trip to London. :-)

  2. Thanks Jan! You have al the excitement to come :)

  3. More in part two! How could you do this to me... I'm on the edge of my seat! A fascinating read, seeing as I am now at the stage of sending my novel out to agents. I shall have to start practicing being patient.

    1. Haha! Thanks for your comment Wendy. Excellent that you're at the exciting stage of agent hunting! Good luck - keep us posted. And yes, brush-up on your patience skills :)

  4. Exciting news, Samantha. I approached one agent. Who sent it back saying, 'not a pageturner', but good luck elsewhere. Have to admire their blunt but truthfulness I suppose.

    1. Hi Susan, sorry for late response! Thank you - it really is exciting! Keep submitting, you'll find the right agent, it can take time and perseverance - and the growing of much thicker skin to get there. But it'll be worth it all in the end :)