A Sentient Brandy Glass, a Troublesome Goat and lots of Edits (How I Got My Literary Agent)
Thanks for dropping by. This is the story of how I got my literary agent. I actually wrote this a while ago, but my imposter syndrome (I call him Phil) told me not to post it until I had written at least three more books. Anyway, I know there are lots of these posts out there already, but I think every journey to finding an agent is unique and interesting. Mine might stand out because this is my first book, I don't have a background as a writer, I found my agent at a pitch contest, and the book itself is quite unusual.
If you'd like to know more, please do keep reading, but if you've had your fill of these blogs, I'll understand completely. You can always skip ahead to the end. My plan is to discuss writing, querying, getting an agent and then share my query stats and some tips I learned along the way.
I started plotting my book, then called DEMONS, DOORWAYS AND DATING in February 2020, on the train home from a socialist wedding (it's like a regular wedding only with more Marx quotes). I’d been wanting to write a novel for years but had never sat down and started planning one. This was probably because I’m dyslexic, and despite working as a teacher for eight years and writing for my class every week, I felt deep down that I wasn't skilled enough to write a book.
This day something was different—I got inspired. For once, I managed not to overthink anything, and the plan flowed out on the train. To my surprise, I liked what I saw. I’ve always been told I have a good imagination (a common dyslexic trait) and, after finishing the plan, I started to believe I might have a little something.
Over the next few weeks, I began writing. Being a huge fan of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, I tried to combine aspects of their hilarious, thought-provoking and philosophical styles, with my voice and opinions. To my further surprise, it wasn't bad. My wife even said so, and she's brutally honest.
With a couple of chapters down, I looked at some Pinterest posts on planning (which you can see here), made a rough plan and pressed on. In all honesty, it was mostly a pantster approach, but I used the plan to keep things on track. I took a tip from The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and set myself a target of writing a minimum of 200 words every day with the option of writing more on good days. Since I had a full-time teaching job and two young children, I figured it would take forever to get a first draft done, but I was surprised to find my word count was building up quickly. My wife helped me by proofreading and giving thoughts as we went, and the first draft was finished at the end of July 2020—another pleasant surprise.
Thrilled to have written an actual book, I sent it out to beta readers, most of whom I found on Fiverr (I hadn’t met many people in the writing community yet) and, after receiving positive feedback, I sent it off to be edited. The book was edited by Cara from Fluky Fiction, and she did a great job. You can find her info at the bottom of this blog.
While DEMONS was off being edited, I learned all I could about querying and wrote my query letter and synopsis. I was ready to go, right?
When I started querying the book in September 2020, it was pitched as a 77,000 word YA fantasy comedy in the vein of Good Omens, with witty, Hitchhiker’s Guide style narration. I decided it was YA because I’d read Discworld, Hitchhiker’s, and Good Omens as a teen. It made sense to me, but I would later learn that things don't really work that way.
Just as the Writer’s & Artist’s Guide to Getting Published suggests, I sent out my first batch of ten queries and waited… No requests.
I wasn't sure what had happened. I thought I'd done everything right and had no clue what to do next.
I did, at least, get one nice rejection that gave me something to work with. I studied it carefully, looking for any clues to what had gone wrong. They said they loved the concept and the query but didn’t connect with the pages. But what could be wrong with the pages I had slaved over?
Cue the list of problems...
Problem One: Agents Hate Prologues
Like many fantasy writers, I have a soft spot for prologues. I had started my book with a two-page philosophical prologue on the nature of God (seriously). Not only that, but I followed that up with two pages of literary style description and the death of an incidental character. I then finally jumped to the main character, who I described with two pages of backstory. Did anyone else just facepalm after reading that? I did, and I wrote the damn book.
Because I wasn’t getting the glowing responses I felt my work deserved, I started reaching out to new beta readers. I also got more involved in the writing community and asked some other writers to take a look. It was a revelation when one of my betas said something to the effect of, ‘This is too slow and boring! Agents will never go for it. They hate prologues. You need something exciting right from the start.’
Tough feedback? Perhaps. But I wouldn’t have found my agent without it.
Disclaimer: I bet there are some agents who like prologues. Somewhere. Maybe they live on an island.
Problem Two: YA, NA or A?
By now it was November, I had moved some chapters around and decided to start the book with the murder of the incidental character. That’s pretty exciting after all. Sure, you had to read two pages to get there, but the writing was tight, and I felt it was a pretty good payoff (I even had the feedback to prove it).
By this point, I'd decided that every time I made a big change, I'd send out a new batch of queries to test it. I was working on the book every evening and finding as many people with know-how as I could to read it; by this point I was obsessed.
The next bit of feedback I got that really helped me was that my comps weren't current and weren’t really YA. After being told this, I immediately started to read more deeply into the difference between YA and A and discovered that my book probably sat best between the two, in the category known as NA or 'new adult'. The only problem was that new adult had pretty much bombed in mainstream publishing, and very few agents seemed to want it (I hope in the future that changes). Once again, panic set in. What was I to do?
Some people told me to stick with YA, some said switch to A, some said NA, and some said query both A and YA. All the blogs I read said books should clearly sit in one age bracket or the other, but my readers didn’t seem to know that.
In the end, I learned the magic phrase ‘YA with crossover potential' and went with that.
Problem Three: Third-Person Omniscient Narration
Fast forward to January, and, by this point, the book was getting much better. I’d been taking a lot of feedback, and all those evenings spent editing had made a difference. I’d added about 17,000 words to the book; it had more jokes and supporting characters, including a goat with good taste in literature and a sentient brandy glass (who turned out to be my future agent's favourite character). I had entered a few pitch contests and received some agent likes by this point (see my blog on pitching), and any feedback I received was getting more nitpicky and less focused on big problems—all good signs.
Then I received some feedback from a partial request and a mentorship contest that floored me. Both people said they liked my writing, the concept and the humour, but they couldn’t follow it because of the multiple narrators. The problem? There was only one narrator.
So I, in a move that caused my anxiety-riddled heart to beat harder than John Bonham after six cups of coffee, asked the editor from the mentorship contest for paid feedback. Before our meeting, I found a blog that said third-person omniscient narration was out of fashion, difficult to write and a turn-off for agents, so I went in fearing the worst. How could I have been so stupid?
The meeting actually turned out to be a very good investment. I quickly saw what the issue was, and it wasn’t too hard to fix. I just needed to make it clear who was speaking right from the very first paragraph and add in little bits here and there to clarify the narration.
Things were a bit tough for me personally at this point. I had left my job in teaching and started a new one where I could work from home. Although this was great news, it had been a very stressful time and had affected my health. On the plus side, this had given me more time with my family and more time to write, which served as good therapy.
At around February time, I finished the edits and good things started to happen. I booked an agent one-to-one, and the agent had a lot of nice things to say; it was a massive confidence boost. I also received two full requests after Pitmad likes, and soon it felt like I was on my way to getting an agent. I had two fulls and three partials out, I’d sorted out all my manuscript problems. Now was my time. Except, it wasn’t.
There was still one, final problem standing in the way.
The Final Problem: Something's Just Not Right...
My fulls didn’t get back to me for over three months (I'm still waiting to hear from one of them), and during that time I wasn’t getting any other requests despite sending out several batches of queries. I started to look at my query stats and I realised my earlier queries had actually been more successful. Worryingly, I also noticed that I’d only ever received full requests from pitch contests. No one who had read my standard query letter had gone beyond a partial. I started to feel like something just wasn’t right, and my fulls were going to end in disappointment. The thought of getting form rejections on those fulls after waiting for months got into my head, and I started to worry. Negative thinking took over and threatened to ruin what should have been a very enjoyable time.
I was saved by two friends from the writing community. The first friend, who was an amazing CP, suggested that I should start the book with the main character, rather than a murder that happens several weeks after they come home. This instantly made my opening pages stronger.
The second friend had just found an agent herself and offered to look at my query. I’d shown it to so many people by that point, and taken so much advice, I thought it must be good. But, as it turned out, I’d overcooked it.
As soon as my friend explained that there was some good stuff in my query, but it was too long and complicated, it was like the clouds had parted and I was seeing blue sky for the first time in months. She helped me slim it back down to around three hundred words, and it made a huge difference.
With renewed confidence, I decided to try querying the book as adult. I'm not sure why I had avoided doing this for so long, but I think it might have been because Phil didn’t feel like my writing was good enough to be a real, proper book for adults (Phil has weird logic, I know), but after working on the book for months and reading a ton of YA and adult fantasy, I knew it was the right move.
I noticed a difference within weeks. More than ever before, I started getting positive, personal rejections. When agents said they enjoyed it, but it just wasn’t quite the right fit for their lists, something in the way they wrote it seemed different. I actually believed them.
Best of all, I got a Pitdark like, and I had my new query letter and pages ready to go. They were forged in the fire of constant, honest feedback from people I trusted. This time I knew my query and pages were good.
How I Got My Agent
I sent off the query to Jared Johnson, the agent who liked my Pitdark pitch, and less than a week later, he got back to me with a full request. As they say, BAM! While I was waiting to hear back from him, I took part in another Pitmad, querying adult for the first time, and prepared to send out batches of adult queries. I also spent a lot of time meditating, visualizing and writing down positive thoughts to get Phil and the various goblins in my brain under control.
Three weeks after the full request, I woke up on a Saturday morning to find an email from Jared sitting in my inbox. I snatched at my phone and read it with baited morning breath. It was an offer of representation! No call, no warning. I lost all ability to speak.
My wife thought something terrible had happened, when I staggered down the stairs, white as a sheet, and shoved my trembling phone in her face as my one-year-old son sat on the sofa eating Shreddies and watching Fireman Sam. My wife read the email, and we screamed, hugged, and jumped up and down. My son was pretty engrossed in Fireman Sam and didn’t pay much attention.
So, after that, I asked Jared for a call, and we had a Google chat, then a video call later that week. I knew right away he was a great fit, but I gave the other agents two weeks to get back to me. I got a few nice rejections, wishing me success in the future, but most agents didn’t get back to me in the time frame. I was a bit disappointed by this, having had visions of them fighting in the street over the chance to rep me, but it was close to a major book fair, and most of my queries were still YA, which was never right for the book. *UPDATE: Two months later, I received 2 requests and 2 rejections. I emailed everyone, I swear.*
In the end, it was an easy choice and I accepted Jared's offer of rep. Working with him has been a wonderful experience, and whatever happens on sub, I feel incredibly grateful to be in this position. I am so thankful to everyone who helped me.
It's hard to give 100% accurate numbers on my queries because I didn't think to note down how many were adult and how many were YA. I think this is pretty close to accurate, though, probably 90%. I do wonder what would have happened if I'd queried adult right from the start. I've not included requests or rejections that came after I accepted Jared's offer.
Tips for Writing and Querying
So, what did I learn from all this? Firstly, I would say that I'm only here because of all the advice and help I received, so I don't feel like I'm much of an expert on anything (Phil would agree). If, however, you want to hear my advice on getting an agent, here it is...
Being clear on the age range/market for your book is crucial, as is being able to explain the premise succinctly in a query letter.
When it comes to your pages, start with your main character in an interesting situation; avoid backstory, prologues and twelve-page poems in original elvish.
If you get no feedback on all your queries, as harsh as it sounds, that is feedback. Something is probably not working.
Most things can be fixed, but you need to know what the problem is.
There are lots of people in the writing community who can help you! Talk to other writers, find beta readers, book an agent one-to-one if you have the cash. Engaging with the community was the real game-changer for me.
With beta readers, aim to have some writers and non-writers (otherwise known as 'normal people') look at your work. Both will have valuable and different perspectives.
Stephen King is right; the road to hell is paved in adverbs. I used way too many of these when I started, and they're a classic sign of telling not showing.
I wrote detailed character portraits for all my characters before writing the novel. These were really helpful, once I realised I only needed to include about a third of the backstory I had written.
Writing the first draft took me less time than the edits and rewrites that were needed to get the book up to the standard most agents would expect.
Proper formatting makes you look professional.
Feedback is invaluable. Feedback that pisses you off often has a grain of truth in it.
Query Tracker is worth the money.
MSWL is a great, free way to find agents.
If you search for the names of books on MSWL, it'll bring up agents who like those books.
Using the read-aloud function in Word really helps with proofreading.
Even if someone spotted a problem, it doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to fix it. Get some ideas from others but trust yourself for the final decision.
Believing you can do it and staying positive is important and, often, it's harder than writing or editing.
A Quick, Final Thought: Heart Books
Thanks for reading, and well done for getting this far! I'd like to mention a quick theory before I end this blog. I know getting an agent on my first book makes me a little bit of an outlier, and I've sometimes wondered if there's any particular reason it happened. Did I write something that filled a gap in the market? Was I lucky? Am I an undiscovered literary genius who just happens to spend most of his free time watching cartoons?
All I can tell you is that I've always had a lucky streak, I think I might have seen a small gap in the market, and I worked hard on my book, but the quality of the writing isn't necessarily the main factor in someone loving our work. The term 'heart book' is something you might hear mentioned in the writing community. To me, it means a book that comes straight from your heart. It’s you. It’s what you think about the world.
My theory is that one of the hardest parts of being a writer, comedian, artist, musician, or anyone who creates, is working out who we are and what we want to say. For a long time, I didn’t know, but I figured it out around the time I was writing this book, and I think that's what made it work.
Feel free to ignore me, because it’s only my theory, but my last thought on getting an agent is that, a willingness to be vulnerable, honest and open on the page, to let people see a glimpse of the real you, is what great writing is all about. And, if you can do that, you'll probably find people enjoy your work. You might even, if you're lucky, find someone who loves it.
Thank you again for reading! I know this was a long post. I'll leave you with a list of books, people and websites that helped me the most.
The Books That Helped Me the Most:
The Websites That Helped Me the Most:
Too many people helped me to list them all. These people offer paid services and they're very good:
Cara - Fluky Fiction (Edits)
Lindz McLeod (Query Feedback)
Laura Samotin (Query Feedback)
Michelle Rascon (Query Feedback and Edits)
If you helped me, and I missed you, I'm sorry. Send me a message and I'll add you to this blog.