Querying agents: what I’ve learnt so far on my journey to being published

Hello! After a VERY LONG TIME, I’m back!

While I’ve been away from my blog for the past year and a bit, a lot has happened. I’ve moved from London to Edinburgh, got engaged (!) and finally finished my novel. (The one mentioned here in a previous post for reference.) While it’s been a really busy time in my life and for my writing, I haven’t yet found the time to coherently jot down my thoughts.

But, as I’m currently quarantining with covid, I thought there was no better time to share where I am on my journey to being published, and how I’ve found the process of querying agents so far.

In the interests of transparency, these are all my own personal experiences and things I’ve learnt, and it certainly shouldn’t be taken as bible. From knowing and speaking to other writers, everyone goes through the querying process differently with different outcomes, although I suspect there are some common strands that link us together. I hope this demystifies how it works a little bit, and is of interest to those thinking of submitting their work to agents in the future.

Getting my novel ready for submission

As I mentioned in a previous post, I threw together a first draft of my novel fairly quickly – in just a couple of months. While this might seem exciting and impressive, I can assure you all it did was give me a massive headache when it came to editing and redrafting.

My original aim of finishing the final draft of my novel got pushed back from September 2021, and then to January 2022. Eventually, I felt like I was in a good place to start submitting in February 2022. This means that redrafting my book took over a year from finishing my first draft in January 2021.

So, before finally hitting send to my first batch of agents on Valentine’s Day (how romantic!), how did I know that my novel was ready to be set free?

The honest answer is that I was sick of it. Absolutely sick of it. I can’t tell you exactly how many drafts I did because I would be halfway through redrafting and decide to start a new draft again from the beginning. Altogether, I think I must have been through the book thoroughly from beginning to end around six or seven times, with each draft throwing up new issues, plot holes and inconsistencies. There were a few tears along the way, that’s for sure.

At times it felt like wrestling some great beast and I often felt like I was losing against it. What kept me sane was my lovely writing group who supported me through each chapter, kindly providing feedback as I went through; breaking things down into lists and spreadsheets to make it feel somewhat more manageable; and a belief that the book was doing something and going somewhere – what and where I had to wait to find out.

I could go on forever about the heaven and hell that is redrafting, but ultimately these were the things I was sure of when I reached the end of my final draft (for now):

  • My book has an overarching storyline that can be summarised and pitched in a couple of sentences.
  • My main character goes on a journey (this could be physical, emotional, whatever) and learns something about herself / the world (NB, this doesn’t have to mean your protagonist does a 180 and is a completely changed person, or goes on a hobbit-esque pilgrimage – it can be small and subtle. As readers, we want to see how/if the character has progressed with their experiences. Also, there are books that challenge this idea!).
  • I was confident in my writing and writing style and paid attention to it on a prose-by-prose level. I had pretty much read my whole book aloud to myself to hear how it sounds and flows.
  • There are no glaring mistakes or inconsistencies – think forgetting characters’ names; everything is believable and makes sense.
  • Most important of all: I enjoyed reading my book from beginning to end.

Overall, it felt like there was nothing else I could give to my book. As I told my partner, it felt like I was a sponge that had been sucked completely dry. If you ever feel like that yourself, give it some space and come back to it. If you’ve given it some space, done some more work and you feel like that again, it might be a sign that you’re ready to send you book out into the world.

Deciding which agents to query

I cannot emphasise this enough: do your research before submitting to literary agents. In my day job I spend a lot of time advising future lawyers about how to make good law firm applications, and the same advice applies to submitting to agents – research and submit to agents who you genuinely feel would be a good match for you. I reckon your chances of success will be a lot higher if you work out which agents would most value your work, rather than firing out a copy-and-paste query letter to every agent you’ve ever heard of.

There’s lots of advice out there about researching agents, here are a few places I found suitable agents to apply to:

  • Agency websites: Through some Googling, online research and word of mouth, there were a couple of agencies I had heard of and was keen to submit to. I looked through their websites to find out if there was an agent open for submissions who was looking for something resembling my book.
  • Twitter: I discovered a few agents via Twitter because I followed them already, or I came across them and saw them sharing that they were open for submissions. Some agents/agencies even do shout-outs on Twitter when they’re looking for something specific or have a wishlist.
  • Friends: I’m lucky to have a supportive writing group who have read my book so know the sort of agent that would suit me. If you have anyone you know – either a writing friend, or someone in the industry – who could recommend you a relevant agent, definitely take advantage of it!
  • People I’ve met: I’ve attended a few writing/reading events over the years, plus had a couple of agents visit my Creative Writing Master’s course at Royal Holloway, University of London. Use any contact you can – agents will be much more likely to respond to you if you’ve met them before or have a connection. This is how I managed to get some feedback from one of the agents I speak about below. Mention that you’ve encountered them in the opening line of the query email to catch their attention.
  • Agents of authors you admire: I’ve heard this tip before and haven’t necessarily used it myself, but if there’s a book you’ve really enjoyed, or think your writing could possibly compare with, find out who the agent is and submit to them. It could be that they’re looking for their next project!

The most important thing about researching agents is submitting to ones you stand a chance with. That means checking if they’re open for submissions (agents might close for submissions if they have enough clients/projects) and what they’re looking for. All agency websites will give you a short summary of what each agent is looking for – pay close attention to this. If your novel is historical fiction, don’t submit to the agent looking for sci-fi and fantasy. Or, if your book is literary fiction, there’s probably no point submitting to an agent whose previous books are all very commercial.

By doing a bit of research you’ll really maximise your chances of success. Look for key words and phrases in what they’re seeking. Terms I found in my research like “vivid setting”, “obsessive friendships and relationships” and “well-crafted and stylish prose” were all things I felt my book offered, so when I saw agents asking for them, I could feel confident that my work would at least be considered.

And, don’t forget – if they say that they’re looking for something specific and your book offers it, tell them explicitly in your submission! Which leads me onto…

Query letters, novel samples and the dreaded synopsis

With your book as finished as it can be and hopefully a nice list of agents to apply to, the next step is to sort out your query letters and synopses.

I’d like to write more on this part of the process once I’ve been successful in securing representation, so below is a brief summary of how I’ve tackled this so far.

Query letter

I kept my query letters relatively short, making sure to include a) a short, snappy pitch b) some justification as to why I was applying to this agent (eg, “I’ve read that you’re looking for X, Y and Z which my book offers”) and c) some information about me including my creative writing credentials such as my Master’s and anything I’d been published in or shortlisted for.

Also, I believe it’s fine to put the query letter in the body of the email which is what I did. Some agencies specified this. At another point I’ll pull together some useful resources I found for writing a query letter!

Synopsis

Now onto the difficult part… the synopsis. God, I hate writing a synopsis! I really struggled with this and it was definitely reflected in some feedback I received from one agent which led me to reviewing and rewriting my synopsis before querying new agents. Annoyingly, agencies can ask for different length synopses (either by wordcount or number of pages) but I’ve mostly seen agencies asking for a 1-2 page synopsis which means it’s a good idea to start with that length and cut and expand where necessary.

Remember – a synopsis should spell out the key plot points of the novel, covering the main characters and key events that take place. While it’s tempting to do a bit of self-publicity and mysteriously mention something like “and then she discovers a shocking secret!” in a bid to entice your agent to read on, this is the wrong approach. Agents want to see your plot laid bare from beginning to end so they can understand where your book is going, so you need to be clear and specific. I’ll write more about the synopsis when I’ve finally mastered it myself, I’m sure.

Novel sample / manuscript

And, of course, you need to attach your novel sample or manuscript to the email. It’s normal for agents to ask for the first three chapters of your manuscript, but a couple have asked for my whole novel upfront which feels a bit scary! Ensure it’s as perfect as can be and formatted as requested on the agency website.

With all of that, you’re ready to craft your email, take a deep breath, squeal for a little bit, and hit send. You might receive an automated response from an agent or agency, or sometimes an agent will drop you an email to let you know they’ve received your submission.

Sound exciting? It is! It’s also somewhat anti-climactic as I found. If you’re hoping to receive an immediate response telling you how brilliant you are and asking to read the rest of you book (or better yet, just giving you representation straightaway lol) – then snap. Unfortunately, what I discovered in reality is that it might take a while for agents to get back to you (think several weeks) and if they’re not interested then they’re unlikely to reply at all. Don’t worry though, it’s all part of the game. It just takes one positive response to kickstart the next part of the journey.

Receiving feedback

I feel extremely lucky that I’ve had great conversations with a couple of the agents I queried so far. One went back and forth with me to make some suggestions on my plot, which I did a bit of work on implementing. Although they didn’t offer representation in the end, it was a great experience to communicate with them and receive positive feedback on my writing, and some food for thought on my plot and storyline.

I received further feedback from another agent who also gave me some things to think about, alongside some nice words which makes me feel like I’m definitely heading in the right direction. As we writers are surely sick of hearing, literature is subjective and agents have to feel really strongly about your work in order to take it on. The likelihood of that happening means that you can’t take to heart every rejection you get.

Sometimes I pretend that I’m an agent and think of every book I’ve ever read. How many of them would I feel strongly enough to want to work on and represent? Probably only a handful! Those odds are the same for agents who are extremely busy and may only have capacity to take on a couple of new projects a year – often from thousands of submissions. Besides, if you’ve ever read a book that everyone is raving about and thought ‘what’s all the fuss about?‘ then you’ll understand that we all have different tastes and opinions. What’s brilliant to you might be boring to someone else. I’ve tried to bear this in mind as I’ve received my rejections and feedback. Although it can be difficult, you shouldn’t take things too personally. I spoke about dealing with criticism as a writer in this blog post.

I think it’s also important to remember that if an agent rejects you, it probably means that they weren’t the right one for you anyway. One of the agents that rejected me spoke about making big changes to my plot that I don’t know I would have been entirely comfortable with. That means that if they had agreed to take me on, I might have had to change a lot about my book to fit the agent’s personal style – which might not have necessarily been the right thing to do. I’m quite clear in my query letters that my novel is an upmarket literary-commercial crossover, so I don’t know if I would be happy about an agent who wanted to push it more towards the commercial end of that. I’m not saying that I’m an expert, but I have a strong sense of where I want my book to sit, and would probably be quite resistant to somebody who wanted to move it far away from that. It’s important that you and your agent share a similar vision for your work.

While you shouldn’t always take an agent’s feedback to heart, it’s also important to thoroughly reflect on it. If you’re receiving the same issues mentioned from multiple different people, it’s likely that this is a problem you should address. That’s why I’d recommend applying to agents in batches. You don’t want to submit to 100 agents and have every single one come back with the same criticism or feedback.

By submitting to a few at a time (I do three or four), you can collate the feedback and work out if you need to return to your novel before submitting it to the next batch. While this does mean it will be a long process (factoring in how long it takes for agents to reply, if at all – cry) it does mean that you’re not putting all your eggs into one basket and firing off submissions to everyone with what could potentially be a big flaw at the heart of your book. Or eggs.

What next?

Well, with this process taking as long as it has, I still feel like I’m at the beginning of my querying journey even though it’s been a few months. I’m awaiting responses from a number of agents with one of them currently reading my full manuscript which is not at all terrifying. After a few more tries, I will probably go back to the drawing board to decide if I need to look at my novel again in light of the feedback received.

Something else that I’m continuing to do is apply for novel and other writing competitions which gives me a nice set of deadlines to work towards while I wait to hear back from agents. I’m hoping that my mixture of short, medium and long-term deadlines will keep me motivated and keep the ball rolling externally on my writing.

Also, if you’re based in Scotland the Society of Authors has been running a great series of events to demystify what it’s like to work as a writer called ‘Industry Insider’. I attended one in June on the rights and value of your work, and the next one on Tuesday 5 July covers working with agents. You can register for that virtual event here. The Society of Authors runs events for writers all over the UK so it’s worth checking out if they have any national or regional events going on.

I hope this post has been of use, or at least of interest. It’s certainly been surprisingly enjoyable to write! I didn’t know I had so much to say about querying agents until I started writing this and then I realised how much I’ve already discovered about the process along the way. I’d like to keep my blog more regularly updated with creative writing content and posts about the process of being published. So, watch this space and wish me luck on the journey!

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