Thursday, 10 March 2011

Four times I didn't get an agent & one time I did

I promised I'd blog about the road between here, and here, answering specific questions along the way such as Q. How did I choose which agents to approach? Q. What was my approach pattern? Q. How long did it take the agent to get in touch after I submitted the novel? Q. Any magic tips? So, here goes.

First Time I Didn't Get an Agent: It's getting close to Christmas 2006. I've just finished a crime novel. It's my first attempt at the genre. Full of the novice's confidence (I don't know any better, yet), I decide to pitch to the biggest crime agent in the UK. I follow the submission guidelines to the letter, send the first three chapters by email, and pretty quickly get an email back, from the agency's editor. The action of the story doesn't start quickly enough, I'm told. Thanks, but no thanks. That novice's confidence hasn't quite left my system, so I pick up the phone and call the editor, and we chat and I persuade her to give the full manuscript a go.

Lesson #1: Don't always take No for an answer. If I'd put a red line through this agency at this stage, and moved on to my second choice, I might still be looking for an agent today. However, this goes hand in glove with:

Lesson #2: The agent is always right. She always has a point. You may not agree with it. But you ignore it at your peril. Because here's what happened next:

I didn't get an agent. The editor stood by her first impression, and she was right to do so. I was given an A4 page of invaluable feedback, and was asked to send my next book to them.

My next book? I was wiped out from writing this one. Could I really write a second? How long would it take? It took twelve months.

Second Time I Didn't Get an Agent: It's Christmas 2007, and I'm ready to send my second novel in search of an agent. This time I decide to share my eggs between two baskets, and add a second agent to my hit list, someone recommended by a friend. I follow the guidelines, email the opening section, and quickly get two requests for a full ms. This time, I think, I've cracked it. I don't hear back from either agent for some weeks. Then an email from my first choice: She likes what she's seen so far, can she have a little more time to finish it? Of course. I'll wait. That confidence is creeping back up.

Lesson #3: Never wish too much for something. Try to put it from your mind. You should be thinking about the next writing project, in any case, not indulging in fantasies about this one.

The verdict from the first agent? Not this novel. Maybe the next one. I'm still processing this when I get a call from the second agent. She likes a lot of what I've done, but I've over-complicated the plot, pursued too many tangents, not tied down the core adequately. Could I simplify things, rewrite, tighten, sharpen? And send it to another reader at the agency, for a fresh pair of eyes? Of course I can.

Lesson #4: The agent is always right. Oh, wait, that was Lesson #2. Well, it's an important lesson, so maybe it needs learning twice. Because this is what happened next:

I didn't get an agent. The other reader still found it too complicated, not linear enough. Maybe the next book?

At this point, I felt like Alfred Molina in Prick up Your Ears. You can find out what I mean, here, which also includes an autopsy from this latest agent rejection.

Still reading? Then it's time for:

Third Time I Didn't Get an Agent: February 2009. I've done it again. Written something new. Subbed the front end, received a full ms request, tried to keep my hopes under lock and key. One thing I didn't appreciate fully at the time, but for which I am boundlessly thankful now, was that I had a dialogue going with the biggest crime agent in the UK. Her team (the best in the business) had read the full ms of every crime novel I'd written. Her editor (about whom Val McDermid recently said, '(Her) instinct for story is second to none') was helping me to get better at what I wanted to do. None of this would've happened if I'd struck this agency off my hit list because of that first, or any subsequent, rejection.

Lesson #5: If you're lucky enough to catch the eye of an ace agent, don't shoot yourself in the foot by thinking rejection now means rejection always. If an agent is taking the time to tell you, at length and repeatedly, what is wrong (and right) with your work, then use that. It's gold dust. You can make beautiful things from gold dust.

Where was I? Oh, yes. What happened next.

Fourth Time I Didn't Get an Agent: It's another No. It's two pages of detailed A4 reasons why it's a No. It's an offer to read whatever I do next. Not now, but next.

Lesson #6: The agent is always right. Oh, and being bloodyminded goes with the territory. Ultimately, only one person can ever say No to your writing, and that's you. If you're prepared to keep trying, to keep writing, to make friends with failure and get better at what you want to do - it will happen. Because here's what happened next:

In March 2010, I started writing something new. I wrote every day for five months, often as much as 4,000 words a day. I didn't stop. And at least once a week, every week, I referred to the three letters I'd had from the agent, telling me what I needed to do more, or better. Apart from this, I put thoughts of agents and publishers out of my mind.

Lesson #7: Writers write. The rest of it comes later.

In November 2010, I emailed the agent and asked if I could send her something new. She said Yes, please, of course. I sent her the first section, and her reader requested a full ms. Within a week, I received an email from the agent's editor (whose instinct for story is second to none) telling me that the reader's report was very encouraging and asking for an exclusive until the agent and editor were finished reading it.

Lesson #8: There's an etiquette to agent submissions. It might differ between agencies, but learn the rules and follow them. It's only polite, and professional.

It got to the end of the week during which I knew the editor had been reading the ms. On Thursday afternoon I began telling myself it was a No. Too much wishing, remember? And then:

First Time I Got an Agent: At 6pm on Friday, the editor emailed. I'd done a great job with the ms, she said. It was controlled, surprising, compelling, dark and clever. Could I come for a meeting next week? Of course I could. At the meeting, I was offered representation, and asked to do something. Can you guess what? I was asked to rewrite the novel. Well, in parts. And of course I did just that. Have just finished with the rewrite, in fact. It will go back to the agent in the next week. After that, well, watch this space.

In conclusion? It only takes one agent, one time. But it might take four books. Still, you're a writer. You want to write a hundred books. Four is nothing. Right?

48 comments:

Anne Booth said...

Thank you so much for writing this. It is so encouraging. You really deserve all the success you get. I have only written one full length adult novel, and have had lots of good feedback but am without an agent. I will now remember to feel encouraged by the positives and do what my husband and friends have all been saying - get on with the second. I am so inspired by you writing four! Well Done!

Tania Hershman said...

This is SUCH a great post, I am going to tell everyone to read it!

debutnovelist said...

Great story and the best possible ending. Thanks for sharing and helping us all learn the lessons.
Best of luck with the next step.
Alib

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet said...

I don't think i realised that it was the SAME agent every time. Go you for tenacity.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Anne. It wasn't until I sat down to write it that I realised how many lessons I'd learnt from the experience; I'd absorbed a lot of it along the way, but it was good to get it down. And yes! Do get on with the second book. I know how hard it is to move on from a project you put so much into, but it's an incremental process. You're writing towards better writing, always. From the sound of it, you're already gettimg excellent encouragement to keep at it. Good luck, and have fun.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Tania! It was interesting to write it all down and see it in perspective for the first time.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, debutnovelist!

Sarah Hilary said...

AE, it was the same two agents, all the way down the line. I did try a couple of others, at one point, but I knew I wanted my first choice and I was being encouraged by that agency, so it made sense to concentrate my efforts there.

Lynn said...

A wonderful post and very inspiring. I have been writing the same novel for a number of years, learning my craft in a very practical way. Days go by when I feel I haven't made much progress followed by others, like yesterday when I could see the scene developing inside my head. Your post will definitely encourage me to the next stage.

Susan Woodring said...

What a great story!! I admire your attitude and your tenacity. Congratulations to you! To a long and fruitful relationship with your agent!!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Lynn. I admire your patience and loyalty to the same book. I was terribly disloyal to mine - put them aside and moved on each time - but I hope to revisit the storylines/characters in each of the four books that didn't make it, now that I'm learning more about my craft and have the agent's support.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Susan!

Jenzarina said...

This makes such a great story in itself! All my hats are off to you for your incredible tenacity and strength of will.
I can't wait to read the novel!

Claudia said...

That was a very enlightening and inspiring read. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Sarah!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Jen! I figured an "it was easy-peasy" story wasn't worth telling. And would've been annoying to read.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Claudia!

Nik Perring said...

Wonderful post! And congratulations! Sincerely: thoroughly deserved.

Nik

Adam iwritereadrate said...

Hi. Some fantastic determination here - great story of success and valuable lessons for aspiring authors.

Congratulations - best of luck with the next novel!

All the best
Adam
iwritereadrate.com

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Nik, and for the tweets supporting this (and me). Much appreciated!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Adam!

marthawilliams.org said...

What a massively encouraging and wonderful story! So glad you got your agent -- please keep us posted on progress and in the meantime I'll be sharing this on Twitter.

Sara Crowley said...

Thank you for this post, Sarah. Really admire your dedication and persistence. And your ability to learn and grow. Thrilled for you.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Martha. I'm very glad for this to be shared around the place. I'd have liked to read something like it four years ago!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Sara!

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet said...

Tweeting this too!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, AE. I tweeted your mugging from the Telegraph - excellent that you were able to sell it and "out" the she-worm and her like.

Gale Martin said...

Great story of perseverance! I really needed to hear this story right now, and you deserve all the success you've gotten for working so hard. I'd like to recognize your blog on my writing blog as blog of the week, Scrivengale, where I will picture it and put a link in the sidebar.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Gale, great to see my blog over at yours. I hope it gives heart to other writers who are where I was at earlier legs of this journey. As I said to another reader, I wish I'd been able to see into this future (which is still uncertain, of course, and hard work but that's par for the course) and know that the persistence and effort is starting to pay off.

Flowerpot said...

Wonderful news and well done for such perserverance which is a lot of what it is all about isnt it? Good for you!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Flowerpot!

Jan Morrison said...

this is a very helpful post. I'm in that stream and I send out my newest book to the same agent feeling like that is ballsy and wrong but I don't care - she took loads of the first book and I took her advice and her compliments and have kept working. I hope I have the same happy beginning - I nearly wrote ending but it isn't.
Jan Morrison

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Jan. It sounds like you have a rapport with the agent, and it's great you're building on that. Very best of luck with this newest "beginning".

Sarah Allen said...

Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience, extremely beneficial to us aspiring writers.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Sarah Hilary said...

Thank you, Sarah! I'm glad you found the post useful.

Jessica said...

Thank you Sarah for a really great article. I think it has already been said but I found your post encouraging :)

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Jessica. I may need to do a new post about the nerve-wracking business of waiting for the agent's verdict on rewrites!

jaxbee said...

This is a wonderful, uplifting post, thanks Sarah! I've just received a rejection from an agent who's invested so much time in me, I almost feel as sorry for her as I do me! She gave me fantastically useful feedback on my full ms. I thanked her and asked if she'd consider looking at any revisions. 'Of course,' she said, bless her. She's just read the revisions and sent me a wonderfully comprehensive note on why she won't be taking this forward this time. I am disappointed, of course, but actually, I'm just so pleased that she made her original comments as my re-write with those firmly in mind has made this a much better book than the one I sent to her three months ago. I've pretty much had free editorial services and if I do go on to get an agent for this novel, it will be partly due to this agent's feedback. And if I don't, then I'll have a go with book number two (yes I'm writing it :), starting with this agent first.
Best of luck with your career, Sarah.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Jaxbee. From the sound of it, you're well on the way. The agent must see her time spent on your ms as an investment, which means she knows you have promise - and you're proving you have staying power, which is the other half of the equation. Very best of luck with book two, and enjoy the (bumpy) ride.

Fehmida Zakeer said...

Very uplifting and inspirational, thanks so much for posting this. Looking forward to your novel.

fehmida

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Fehmida!

Pete said...

Great story, and inspiring. Thanks, Pete

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Pete.

ange said...

Wow, you deserve all the success that comes your way. Talk about determination.
I do agree that you shouldn't move on from an agent who shows takes the time to make a few suggestions - before saying no!! I asked the agent who did that to me, if she'd mind if I made the changes and sent my ms again. She said 'fine.' She said it was much better but then suggested more changes. I fought my case on a couple of her suggestions but agreed to others. She re-read it, and said she'd represent me. So you're right - persevere!!
Have my fingers crossed for you.
@angebarton

Sarah Hilary said...

Brilliant success story, Ange, congrats! And thanks for dropping by.

Deb Rickard said...

Like Anne said right at the beginning, thanks so much for writing this. I'm going to bookmark it to come back to again ... and again ... and again. I could feel your disappointment each time and yet it's so encouraging. I'm sure great things are on the horizon for you. Well done!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Deb, I'm so glad you dropped by to read. I thought it was only fair to give a candid account of the disappointment (I didn't put in the many, many times I wept tears of frustration at my inability to Get It Right), but ultimately I do hope it's an encouraging story for readers struggling in the way I was (and still am, pesky rewrites!).

Lae Monie said...

Love your post. I can see myself in it from beginning to end. Funny, inspiring and uplifting. Great post! :)

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Lae!