Getting an agent – ‘Make me an offer I can’t refuse, big boy’ (‘big boy’ optional)

First thing is that you don’t have to have an agent to get published (you don’t even need a publisher to be published these days which really is pretty astonishing). But it’s also fair to say that an agent can help you get published. And help you understand the process. And make sure you don’t get screwed over. And give you some measure of vindication / kudos / justification for giving up your day job (whilst also advising you not under any circumstances to give up your day job). Getting an offer of representation is seen by many (not all) as being the key to the door of the publishing world; your invitation to the book deals, the champagne lunches, the festivals, the prizes, the glory – or simply the ability to say, ‘I’ll have to check with my agent’ without sounding like a pretentious wanker (NB – you will still sound like a pretentious wanker).

For those who are convinced they don’t need an agent or those who perhaps have had their fingers burnt by a previous unhappy relationship (a professional one, with an agent – nothing untoward implied) then this blog post may be of little interest. But for those who would like to find a champion, someone to hold your hand through the publishing maze and be the terrier snapping at the heels of a vast and intimidating industry, so that you don’t have to, then let me tell you the story of how I found mine. Are we sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin… (as an aside – I read yesterday that only people over the age of forty use ellipses and that the youngsters find them sinister…)

Firstly, as per previous posts, I got my spreadsheet and started subbing. And subbing. And subbed some more. The spreadsheet lengthened and tested my abilities with Excel. Some rejections took hours and some took months but there was just enough interest to keep me coming back over and over again, tweaking my opening three chapters and synopsis to fit the brief and altering my pitch letter (always do this – it’s just unacceptable to cut and paste the wrong agent information). Likewise, make sure there are no spelling mistakes. I sent off one of my very first submissions to the legend Sheila Crowley at Curtis Brown with a grammatical error and spent the rest of the day feeling physically sick, wondering whether it was better to send a follow up email to apologise for the error and whether she would think I was clinically insane for doing so (note – I didn’t send a follow up email. Best to accept that a ship has sailed rather than look like a loon by saying ‘Dear Mrs Crowley, When I said who’s I actually meant whose)

Second thing is that when you get a request for a full manuscript, celebrate it – whatever happens afterwards you must be doing something right to have piqued their interest – but, whilst celebrating, you must also sit on your hands and resist the temptation to email them the very next day saying ‘Did you like it? Did you? Have you read it yet? Have you? HAVE YOU??? DO YOU LIKE ME????‘ etc etc. There were a couple of agents who requested full manuscripts who then didn’t get back to me for another three or four months (mostly rejections with one notable exception) so don’t stop subbing to other agents in the meantime. Don’t think to yourself, ‘Oh well, they’ve expressed a vague interest in my story and therefore I am now betrothed to them ’til my life’s end.‘ You keep on touting your wares like the book-whore you are (harsh, but in my case, fair).

Third, write something else alongside the submission you are waiting on. Think of it as two entirely separate processes occurring simultaneously – Book One is out on submission whilst you keep a cursory eye on it, there is occasional excitement and a lot of drudgery, whereas Book Two is simply you carrying on writing, ticking along, no pressure, lots of fun – Yay!

Fourth, enter some competitions. It doesn’t need to be a whopper (although why not enter those too?) but short of an agent getting back to you with an offer of representation there is nothing more exciting than being long-listed for something, or that little lift you get when you enter a Twitter pitch and get a shout out. Curtis Brown Creative run a monthly #WriteCBC competition with prompts and honestly, the joy of having other writers like your pitch – it’s a real boost. During my submitting process I entered The Bath Novel prize, the Bridport prize and the Lucy Cavendish prize because, you know, why not aim high? I also entered the Trapeze Search for a love story, Grindstones Literary prize, Myslexia competitions, the Choc-Lit Search for a star, the Gransnet / Harper Collins competition and the Comedy Women in Print prize (short-listing and long-listing for some of these proved to be invaluable). The advantage with competitions is that you have a fixed timetable. You know that on whatever date you’ll have an answer, selected or rejected. This is helpful if you are a bit of a control freak and would rather a straight No than dangling on a string for months at a time.

Although I had interest in Book One from a couple of agents, it was all dragging along a bit slowly until I started subbing my second novel which was subsequently long-listed for the CWIP. At one point (back in the early part of 2020) I had two agents and a publisher with an ongoing interest in book one but nothing concrete. One agent considered it several times bless her and was very good about reading my rewrites but couldn’t quite get past the squeamishness about the hospice setting. The other agent was just taking her time – I’d subbed her later than the others and when I had all but given up on book one I had an email from her asking to see the full manuscript (one of those lovely red letter days). The reason I had subbed this particular agent (Tanera Simons at Darley Anderson Agency) was that my sister had just finished Beth O’Leary’s Flat Share and mentioned that there were some similarities with my manuscript (not least the hospice workplace). I thought, here’s an agent who is prepared to take a punt on a potentially controversial setting, and also, here’s an agent whose client writes like an angel and is doing phenomenally well, rocketing up the bestsellers charts across the world. Worth a punt at least. I didn’t hold out much hope that I’d get into the same stable as Beth O’Leary but a girl can dream, and when Tanera asked to see the full manuscript I was over the bloody moon. The publisher who was also looking at book one in the meantime was making very helpful noises and made a suggestion that totally transformed the manuscript for the better – so Book One was suddenly looking exciting again.

And then, two or three agents got in touch about Book Two….

And then Book Two was longlisted for CWIP… (more ellipses – sorry under 40s)

Suddenly there was a proper flurry of excitement in the Peach household. I was in a position to email the agents who were still looking at either / both of my books and say truthfully that other people were interested. I started lining up meetings with agents – I say meetings when in reality I mean zoom calls because by now the pandemic had kicked in with extreme lockdown in full effect. And I say ‘lining-up’ when really I only mean three meetings with three different agents, but when you’ve been waiting for just one, having three in a row feels astonishingly lucky and thus hyperbole is acceptable.

The rest, as they say, is history. I deliberated long and hard over who I should go with and it wasn’t necessarily the straight-forward situation you’d anticipate. A lot of what you learn about an agent-author relationship occurs after you’ve signed with them and it’s very hard to make such a massive decision based on one conversation. The other thing is that when you’re having your ‘agent chat’ it’s not really clear that you are interviewing them. The reality is that you’re desperately hoping they’re going to end the conversation saying they want to represent you. You’ve been waiting for this moment, you’ve been coached to believe that here is the person who holds the key to publishing success and thus your first instinct is to please them; to say, ‘Oh you want to market my Rom Com as a Sci-Fi thriller set in space? Okay, great. Sounds good. Please sign me. Please.‘ You’re not genuinely considering whether you want them.

And yet this is the mindset you have to try and adopt – you are looking for someone who will work for you.

Some agents are hand-holders and soothers, constantly there with reassurance and support, others are more business focused and when they’re not responding to your email at midnight it’s because they are actually chasing up some tricksy element of a publishing deal on your behalf instead. Some are editorially savvy and others will say, ‘I love what you write, just carry on.’ But as far as I can tell, all agents are completely invested in the work of the clients they take on and committed to doing the very best by those clients. There is no way they would be in the job otherwise – the publishing industry runs on goodwill and the knowledge that those working within it will be thinking about books every waking moment of every day until they retire, irrespective of what they are paid for it. As far as I can gather from those I know who work across the sector, it’s very much a labour of love – which, for a romance writer, is as it should be.

Dealing with rejection – get used to it.

 

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Aha. The old ‘How I got my agent’ post….. Or rather, the ‘Here is what happens before you find an agent‘ post.

Rejection, old chums. And plenty of it. So, how to cope?

Realism

It is extremely unlikely that you have written the greatest novel of our age or that the world will be changed by the message you carry. Soz. What you have done is written a story that primarily has provided entertainment and escapism for you. And that may well be enough. It should be enough. Writing is a hobby that some people are fortunate to turn into a career but it should always be fun, soothing, therapeutic. It should do you good, otherwise what’s the point? Stories are for falling into; immersing yourself in a different world for a few hours at a time. And, yes, stories are also for sharing – that is how we learn about life, but be honest, your book may not contain the secrets of the universe. It might just be a story about a dog and penguin. And that is perfectly alright – because who doesn’t love stories about dogs and penguins?

It doesn’t matter what your story is about as long as it pleases you and gives you a route out of the humdrum of daily life. If it then pleases those around you, that’s an enormous plus, but again, not essential. And if you make it to the hallowed portal of the slush pile and find that your story pleases an agent and then a publisher, well that’s great. But what you need to know right from the off is that this story is for you.

Rolling Rota

Imagine yourself standing with your book in your hands and before you stretches a queue of agents extending as far as the eye can see, over the horizon and into a distant land. Unless you’ve written something really niche, there are a helluva lot of agents out there who might choose to represent your book. There are also many smaller publishers who will take you on without an agent AND there is the burgeoning market of self-publishing. You are spoilt for choice. So, start with your top ten, research them, make sure they represent the kind of work you’re pushing and send it out to the first five (doing exactly as these sort of articles always suggest, following the submission guidelines to the letter). And then every time a rejection comes in, simply move along to the next one on your list and send it to them. This way you always have five irons in the fire and five emails to look out for with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Periodically add five more agents to the list and keep working through. Keep a record of it on an excel spreadsheet. Your list may run to fifty, sixty or into the hundreds. Who cares? What have you got to lose by sending it out? Nothing. What do you have to gain? Either a publishing deal or a lot of weight from your rejection chocolates – see below.

Rejection chocolates

An idea given to me by a lovely author Pernille Hughes – she suggested buying a box of your favourite, most expensive chocolates; it had to be proper high end confectionery, a real treat. And then only allow yourself to eat one if you get a rejection. No exceptions.** No chocs if you’re just ‘having a bad day’ or ‘feeling a bit peckish’ – only for rejections. What happens is you find yourself feeling pretty cheerful when you see the ‘Thank you for giving us an opportunity to look at your work. Whilst there is much to admire, we simply didn’t love it enough to take it forward….’ email because you know that you can help yourself to one of the delicious Godiva Belgian Selection currently perched on the top shelf of your study (away from small children).

 

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Resilience

Mental toughness. We get told this as GPs all the time – resilience is the key to avoiding burn-out – as if it’s my moral weakness and lack of fibre to blame for the fact that I’m crying inside when faced with an absolute bloody deluge of medical work. One thing is true though, a career in general practice has prepared me well for facing the slings and arrows of publishing misfortune. And at least publishing people are courteous, or at worst they ignore you. It’s rare to have an agent reply saying ‘You’re the worst writer I’ve ever seen and I’m going to sue you if you don’t look at my daughter’s verruca immediately,’ or similar. In the main, people let you down gently. And an author who has faced no rejections at all (if such a beast exists) is going to find life very tough when they get their first bad review on publication.

If you put it out there you have to understand that not everyone is going to love it. But one person might. And if it’s the right person then you are on your way.

The key thing is – pick yourself up. Keep writing. Keep subbing. 

That’s it really.

 

** Admittedly there have been some exceptions – and when I did get an agent I scoffed the lot, thinking my days of rejection were over – then had to promptly buy myself another box when we started subbing to publishers but that’s another story (quite literally)

The path to publication is paved with good intentions (and big decisions).

 

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In the last post I outlined the unreserved joy of writing romantic fiction for the first time but I glossed over the complexities. Please note – some of the opportunities that come your way may require big decisions….

Decision One – Do I change my story?

My first novel is a Pride and Prejudice type love story set in a hospice.  My main protagonist is a junior doctor and the love interest is the wealthy son of a dying patient.  So far so good, but issues already on the table are professional accountability, conflict of interest and compromised doctor-patient relationship. Conflict is good in a novel, in fact it is probably the only essential component of any story.  If it was all, boy meets girl, quite fancies her, she quite fancies him, they get married, the end – most people wouldn’t pick up their kindle.  But multi-title romantic fiction publishers like their conflict to be a little less ethically fraught, and perhaps more reliably formulaic. This is not a bad thing – the romance genre very much does what it says on the tin, and a happy ever after is essential.

So, decision number one was, do I scrap the idea and pursue a more conventional medical romance plot line? (Dashing cosmetic surgeon who fears rejection meets feisty but devastatingly beautiful scrub nurse etc, etc).

No. I liked my original idea and if I was beginning with a potentially controversial plot line, no matter. I pressed on.

Decision Two – Do I change my setting?

Later, I had some feedback that perhaps a hospice was a ‘hard sell’ as a setting for a romance. I disagreed of course, what better place could there be to set a love story? All human emotion is here, strong feelings, big gestures, remorse, guilt, reconciliation and, above all, love. But it’s hard to disagree with an agent who is basically telling you in a very kind way that she’s not sure if she could place your book because of its setting. That’s a bit of feedback you have to take seriously. Interestingly this particular agent changed her mind, but I could easily have chosen to rip up the original manuscript and set the romance in an orange grove in Tuscany.

I didn’t.

 

Some of this is bloody-mindedness – I don’t hold with the idea that my creative work is my ‘baby’ and that for others to frown upon its perfect form is abhorrent and unacceptable. I welcome criticism – genuinely – because criticism from the writing community usually comes in the form of high quality, politely-delivered advice. Even the rejections when they come are terribly, terribly kind and earnest. You can almost hear the eggshells being tiptoed upon as the agent or publisher gently treads around the writerly ego. And compared to the kind of language some of my patients use, or some of my children use from time to time, editorial feedback is milk and honey. But – at this stage in my writing life I didn’t have anything to prove. I didn’t need to make radical changes to my plot or setting because I was happy to keep on sending it out and testing the water.

If I had continued to hit brick-wall after brick-wall and everyone had said the same, then I may have changed my mind – but nobody was depending on my selling books to bring in food for the table – nobody had whispered on their death bed, ‘Publish a book, Nancy. In my memory….‘ (last gasping breath) ‘Do it for me…‘ – so I had no pressure. I could plod along with my little book, my little plot line and my unexpectedly romantic setting, for as long as I wanted. My two big decisions – whether to change my protagonists and make the romance more formulaic, and whether to alter the setting to make it an easier sell, both resulted in a no, not yet.

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Decision Three – Do I sign a deal I’m not happy with?

Along this route I also had another big decision to throw into the mix – do I sign a contract for a  publishing deal I feel uncomfortable about? (I suspect the more perspicacious amongst you will have spotted that the answer is no).

I won’t go into specifics here – it would not be fair on the company or those very happy authors who are published by them – but my main cause for concern was that this particular publisher refused point blank to deal with an author who had an agent. Now, I didn’t have an agent at the time they made the offer, and I know that many digital-first publishers and imprints work happily with un-agented writers, but to have someone refuse to work with an agented author struck me as odd – like saying you weren’t allowed your lawyer to accompany you into the police interrogation.

I took advice and joined the Society of Authors  https://societyofauthors.org/join  and it was THE BEST DECISION I EVER MADE. They knew I was being put under pressure to make a decision (again, not ideal for a future working relationship) and they read through the contract in record time, emailing me a thorough and detailed report a mere forty-eight hours after I’d joined. They suggested that I’d be better self-publishing than signing this contract; waiving my rights and tying myself into a situation where I had no control over my work, and no option to duck out.

And I think this is where we come to the crux of the matter. The reason that some unscrupulous people in the industry have been able to take advantage of writers is because we are all desperate to be published, to say ‘someone else thinks my book has merit‘. This is where vanity publishers come in, the sharks who ask you as the writer, to pay them to publish your book. These are the real cowboys – whereas the company offering me the deal were, and still are, a completely legit organisation who I’m sure have brought writerly happiness to thousands.

The upside of self-publishing is that you are the boss – the downside is that you have to believe yourself capable of being the boss and having the time, money and inclination to promote your book to the masses. But to have someone in authority at the SoA put it in those distinct terms was immeasurably helpful. If I signed I would still have to do most of the leg-work in terms of promotion but the company would get a far heftier wedge of my profits than standard publishing contracts take.  So I declined. Which, with hind-sight was brave, but at the time felt potentially stupid, like I had a really inflated opinion of myself.  It is hard to say, ‘thanks for your offer of publishing fame and glory, but no thanks.’ I’d like to say that I did so in the clear knowledge that it was the right thing, but in reality I was crippled with doubt for weeks.

And weeks.

And then I thought, better start subbing to agents, seeing as I’ve made such a bloody song and dance about needing one…..

The journey begins…

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mean really, could there be anything more indulgent than someone writing about their writing?

Those of you who know me from Twitter or my first foray into blogging http://www.mumhasdementia.com might be aware that I have recently made the move into writing fiction.  Like squillions of others, I have been writing / pratting about for a long time but it was only two years ago that I tried my hand at a full novel. I thought it may be of marginal interest for those at a similar stage to know what led me to this point and how things progress from here, although I suspect this blog will only be remotely entertaining if I actually end up with a publishing deal. There are people out there who find solace in the evidence of someone trying and failing repeatedly – it may at times even be instructive to learn from the mistakes made – but if you would rather stick pins in your eyes than listen to someone blah on about their non-existent writing career then I suggest you move on swiftly.  Like my dementia blog, I’m aiming for niche audience not big numbers.

I began my current WIP (work in progress – get me) a few years ago when I contemplated pursuing a side-line career in writing medical romance. I’m a doctor, I thought.  I’ve been in love before and continue to be very much in love – this will be a piece of cake, I thought. I wrote a chapter and then buried it away when I started the dementia blog.  There are a limited number of hours in my week for writing and at that stage the blog was providing enough of a creative outlet for me. I also realised that medical romance of the Mills and Boon variety was not necessarily the straightforward beast I had assumed – it has very specific rules and it is not something I tend to read – one thing my sister had told me repeatedly is read what you write – so I had failed at the first hurdle.

Two years ago however, I noticed on Twitter that Trapeze books had launched a competition in conjunction with eHarmony to discover the Next Great Romance Novel.  I could write that I thought, with trademark humility and I returned to my chapter, spruced it up, added a bit and submitted it – genuinely thinking I had a good a chance.

Clearly, I was out of my tiny mind.  Half the world want a publishing deal for their debut novel.  People with Creative Writing BAs, MAs and professorships are all competing for the tiniest number of prizes and a possible glimpse of an agent.  And my 3 chapters were complete shite – let’s be frank.  For a start it was a masterclass in how not to do exposition – it was all telling and no showing, all the dialogue was ‘he said kindly’ / ‘she said winningly’ / ‘she wrote dreadfully.’  Now, I read, I read a great deal.  I love books SO VERY MUCH. But I had no grasp of even the basics of getting my own story down on a page.

Nonetheless, I was undeterred.  I had the bug.  Whilst waiting for the inevitable competition win / agents banging my door down / Hollywood on the phone wanting film rights, I just ticked along with my story and I had so much bloody fun.  Writing romantic fiction is an absolute blast, and I’ll admit, I massively fancied my male protagonist; every time I wrote about him I was sort of lusting after him in a literary sense.  I felt like my characters were my friends, which may be a little tragic given the fact that I have a lot of very lovely non-made-up friends already.  Romance is pure escapism (a comment that causes deep distress to my husband who is admittedly very romantic). Given the state of the country and background anxieties about work and family life (I’m a GP with three kids and a mother with dementia, living in a fairly divided Britain – and this was before the pandemic), immersing myself in an invented world came to feel almost essential to my well being.

Writing a story is like reading a story although you can have as much fun writing a crap story as reading a really good one. Most people I know who write describe the agonies, the torture of creative genius, the pain of the edit.  Bollocks to that.  It’s a treat, an indulgence, an act of pure, selfish joy. I have edited and rewritten over and over again and I still love my story.  Even if nothing ever comes of it and nobody ever reads it, I have enjoyed writing it enough to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

Caveat – It may be important to stress here that I just haven’t reached the really tough bit of writing, the exhausting fourteenth draft, the overwhelming fear of rejection, the dreaded block.  There will be wise and experienced writers out there doubtless shaking their heads at my naivety.  No matter – I will get my comeuppance perhaps – or perhaps not. Maybe it will always be a joy – I hope so.