(The Easy Way)
“Hell hath no fury like a hustler with a literary agent.”
Whenever I talk to aspiring writers about craft or technique or anything related to the nuts and bolts of fiction, they invariably brush it aside and say, “Yeah I know all that, but how did you get your agent?” That’s all they care about. They ask the question as if they expect me to present them with a secret formula, or a cheat code they can tap into an ancient Sega Mega Drive controller or something. If I mention discipline, hard work, writing every day, the fundamentals of success, they wave that away like: “Yeah yeah, I get all that. But how did you get your agent specifically?” Everything else is just noise.
To many aspiring writers, penning the novel is the easy part. Even before they’ve attempted it, they think it’s as simple as putting words down on a page, just like painting The Sistine Chapel was as simple as throwing paint at a ceiling. They think catching the attention of an agent is the difficult part. But the real struggle is writing something marketable. And if you’ve laid the foundation by working hard, perfecting your craft, and producing a quality manuscript, everything that comes after is a lot easier.
So for those who care, this is the very straightforward story of how I managed to capture the eye of an agent*.
(*Not her actual eye; I didn’t kidnap her eyeball and hold it hostage, although kidnapping an agent’s eyeball might get you signed quicker. I don’t know. Try it and get back to me).
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Around the age of eighteen or nineteen I sent a completed novel off to a literary agency and was brutally rejected (Read More About That Here). After that, I didn’t approach an agent for at least another five or six years. I decided I wouldn’t embarrass myself like that again. I’d only send something off if I could be certain my work was of a high standard. Years of preening and rewriting and restructuring later, convinced I had something worth selling, I once more began to toy with the notion of a literary agent. It was time.
Unlike my first horrible (and unprofessional) attempt, I chose the smart route. With what little money I had in my bank I purchased The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. If you’ve never heard of this book, go and check it on Amazon. It’s essential to any aspiring authors. Aside from being packed with tips on breaking into the business, or how to finance and market self-published novels, and numerous other tidbits from professional authors, it’s also a manifesto of every credible agent in the UK and US. Not only does it list the agencies (and vets them too, so you won’t end up getting scammed), but it also offers additional information such as their address (in case you wish to stalk any of them to work), their phone number (in case you want to cold-call them and sell them insurance), and most importantly it explicitly states the type of work they represent, and the form in which they’d like to receive that work.
This is tres important.
I’m sure a few egoists among you might think it’s cool to send a Science Fiction novel to someone who clearly states they only deal with Romance Fiction, in some blind pig-headed notion that your novel is so good it’ll make the man rethink his entire career. “What have I been doing all my life? By jove! Romance fiction? Poppycock! This Sci-Fi novel is so good I think I’ll become an agent of those instead.” Just don’t do it. Read the market, pick one that represents your work, and send it to them only.
In the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, it usually states whether they want a full manuscript, or a query letter first, or three chapters, or whatever.
I approached my own submission like it was a complex equation: I spent about three hours circling every agent that dealt with crime fiction, then I wrote their names, addresses and relevant information into a Word folder. I don’t know why. If anything, I think I was stalling. Pretending like I was doing all this work by cross-sectioning people.
I then rewrote the first three chapters of my novel for the 20th time.
Once I was finally ready to send my work off, I chose (probably due to laziness more than anything) all the agents who accepted email submissions, and picked out three.
Then, for whatever reason, I narrowed it down to two.
“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.” — Abraham Lincoln
Before sending my work off, I decided to piss my money down the drain by getting Scribendi, a professional author service website, to write me a synopsis, chapter breakdown, character profile, and query letter as part of my package. I’d convinced myself (due to insecurity) that, even though I could manage to write a 500-page novel, I couldn’t quite grasp the complex intricacies of a simple query letter.
It was ridiculous, but I must have spent about four hundred pound on this needless package. There are plenty of templates on the Internet. A five-minute search will yield one worth using. You can also read my blog about writing a query letter for some more advice.
Anyway, an agent might silently judge you on a terrible query letter, but if it’s short and does the job, they’ll give your novel a try, which is all that matters. No one really cares about anything else. The synopsis might be tricky to write, but you have to work on that too. If you can write the novel, you can create an interesting synopsis.
Follow the process and you’ll already be ahead of the majority.
“The starting point of all achievement is desire.” — Napoleon Hill
With the package completed, I sent off my two emails. The first to respond was an agent whose name I can’t recall. I remember him being old and pedantic. He replied with a lot of positive comments about my novel (a crime-detective book called Cutthroat City, part of a proposed series of six). He also suggested he’d be open to representing me if I could make some changes to the book. His changes weren’t plot-based and he didn’t ask to see any more of my novel; his suggestions were picky syntax-related ideas. “Change ravaged to savaged”, and small shit like that. Something about his style of communication seemed unprofessional, and after a quick search of his background I came to realise that he wasn’t the right agent for me. I could imagine him micromanaging every line of my work like an overeager failed writer-editor who lives his dream vicariously through his clients by endlessly tinkering with their every paragraph. Editorial input is one thing; manipulating my writing for his own needs is something wholly different.
The second one to reply (yay, a two out of two return rate) was Eve White, who eventually became my agent. Her first email was something generic along the lines of “We liked your initial three chapters, could you send the entire manuscript by post?” along with details for me to follow. As requested I printed off the novel and sent it to Eve. Within a week or so she called me up and we had a brief chat. She told me she loved the novel, although in places it could use some work and she could detect a little naïveté in my writing, which, looking back, was a fair comment. At the time I was only 24 (I’m 30 now), but I figured I knew everything. I’ve since learned I know nothing. Either way, I was ecstatic. An agent had validated my writing. I felt like I officially wasn’t a fraud.
However, she didn’t feel comfortable representing a UK author with an American novel as she couldn’t verify whether my fictional American town came across as authentic or not. She politely asked if I could rewrite the book to set it in England. At the time I was resolute: no way, I could never do that, impossible. Nowadays I might approach it differently. After ripping through and rewriting a couple of my novels, I realise how needlessly precious I used to be over my work. In any case, I said no but told her I’d recently completed a novel set in the UK and would she like to see it? She said she would but there was no rush. She didn’t want me sending in half-finished work.
So I moved on to the next step.
“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.” — Bruce Lee
I rewrote the shit out of my UK novel (a crime drama called City of Blades) and once again wasted £300+ on a submission package. I sent the first three chapters, and off the back of those chapters, Eve called me into her office for an interview.
From the 60 pages she’d read (including the previous novel of mine she’d read), she was certain I had something. We spoke for an hour or two, exchanging life stories, checking my writing background, finding out my influences, the usual shit. We got along great. At the end she offered me a contract with her agency. Without hesitation I said yes, but Eve told me to take the contract, get a lawyer to check it over if I wanted to, sign up to The Society of Authors, and a number of other things just to make sure everything was above board, and then if I still wanted to sign with her, we could go ahead with it. So I went home, pretended to do everything she asked, then told her I was ready to join her agency.
A week or so later I received a gold-laminated contract in the post. I still have it and one day I might frame it and put it on the wall — my first professional agency contract; validation from a top literary agent that I had talent. My writing wasn’t dog shit. Or, if it was, at least it was saleable dog shit. Or potentially saleable. Whatever.
I signed that contract one week before my 25th birthday.
It was one of the best presents I’ve ever received.
“Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day.” — Jim Rohn
Anyway, that’s how I got my agent. Nothing special, no tricks, no manipulations, and no cutting corners.
Although, having said all that, it doesn’t work that way for everybody. Some people might go through 100 agents before one picks them up. A good friend of mine, Rob Boffard, went through about 10+ agents and multiple rewrites of his novel before three came to him all at once and he had the choice to pick who he wanted. And now he’s got a three-book deal with Orbit. His novel, Tracer, a riveting Sci-Fi, was released in July of this year. I’ve already read it, and I highly recommend it. You can order it from here.
My point is, if you want an agent: discipline, hard work, but most importantly perseverance is what will get you there. Unless you’re a trash writer.
But even then . . .
Dan Brown, ahem.
On a related note: I’m no longer with that agent for reasons I’ll explain in a future article. But the experience is one I’ll never forget and don’t regret going through.
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