An Agent Replies

Or, Careful What You Wish For.

Pick your ingredients, mash them up, then serve.

Pick your ingredients, mash them up, then serve.

Welcome to the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. A little while ago I mentioned in a post that what I really wanted from an agent (other than an offer of representation of course) was feedback. As a rookie writer I sometimes feel like I’m howling into a gale – I’ve got no real way of getting decent impartial feedback without paying a critiquing company. And while I think the novel is good to go, I’m not precious about it – if something isn’t working then I’ll fix it. All I need is some consensus from people in the business to know what needs another draft. And guess what? I finally have a bit of industry feedback!

In a previous post I talked about sending the novel off to a friend of a friend of a friend who works at an agency. He requested the full manuscript and here’s what he had to say, verbatim:

‘Dear Jonathan

Thanks for this, I’ve read a bit more. I think you write really well and there’s some interesting elements in your story but it lacked the pace and edge of your seat thrill that really gets me excited about a novel. I also think it’s hard these days to have adult books which are quite so quintessentially English in there (sic) settings. I enjoy it but publishers tend to shy away as it limits the appeal out of the UK. For that reason I don’t think I’m the right agent for this book. It’s such a fierce market out there that you really need someone who is 100% behind your writing and will champion you with conviction.

Sorry for the disappointing response but it really is just one opinion and you may find other agents who completely disagree.

I wish you all the best with getting the book published.’

Interesting, no? What do I take from this? There are two real issues here and I think they may have very different solutions.

The pace/excitement factor is something I’ve been wondering about myself, so it’s good to have that raised. I think the novel does start as a slow burner and once the strands twist together – about halfway through – momentum gathers and the pace becomes more breathless. But possibly readers are only going to get to that if they are patient for the first half. This gives me a valuable insight to feed into the next redraft, though I will keep pursuing this version for the time being. As he states, it’s all down to personal opinion so I’ll exhaust a few more avenues before picking reaching for the tipp-ex.

His observation about the quintessential Englishness of the novel is very interesting. The novel is, when you get right down to it, about a young man in small-town England discovering the English folk tradition and folk stories, so making it less quintessentially English would be either tricky or diminishing to what I’m trying to do. I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought of the Englishness being a limiting factor myself, so I wasn’t altogether surprised it was raised. However it got me thinking about other novels and films that are quintessentially English in some way and yet have managed to transcend into international appeal. Richard Curtis films are a good example, I think. Bridget Jones too. Where these work is that the setting is picture-postcard enough (in a way) to be an unthreatening window into the culture for those outside and yet well-observed enough to appeal to the culture itself. Add to that dealing with universal themes and it’s a good combo.

Now, I think I’ve got that balance to a degree. The story distils into a coming-of-age tale when you strip everything else away. The setting is, I suppose, a scratch down below the chocolate-boxiness of some fluffier versions of England, but it’s not exactly gritty. There are a lot of references to geeky cultural touchstones from both the UK and America to broaden the appeal, but also my own observations of day to day life in high-street shops. And when things really get going there are weird, ooky, odd planes of existence with giant spider-monsters. Those are universal, right?

So what does that mean? I think (and I could be wrong – I may need to redraft to broaden the appeal, but as with the pacing I shall seek further feedback ahead of that) that I need to sell the book differently. I need to manage the expectations of the agents I’m writing to and join the dots for them. Effectively I need to tell them why this has more broad appeal than they may think at first glance. Because if I was told about a book set in an English high street about English folk tales then I too would assume it would appeal primarily to the English. Maybe that is the case, but I think I’ve got something more here. I’m going back to my query letter to see if I can work something in to highlight this as a positive rather than let agents think of it as a negative. In a strange way it gives me an aspiration. I want to be the Richard Curtis of the weird.

More soon!



Fastest Rejection in the West

Or, how to learn a lesson

But only, y'know, the good stuff

But only, y’know, the good stuff

This is the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. In the last post I talked about changing the synopsis and query letters ahead of sending out a second batch of letters to agents… Was it time well spent? Not in one case…

As I’ve already mentioned elsewhere, the turnaround times for expecting a reply from an agent is something like 6 – 8 weeks which, given the number of unsolicited submissions they receive each week, doesn’t seem too unreasonable (though it is of course nerve-shredding). I just received a reply, or should I say rejection, in under twelve hours – query sent at 9:30pm, rejection received at 9:01am. Do I take from this that the agency are very quick at reading submissions, or is there something else? Was there something in the initial few sentences of my query that put them off? I think it was the latter, and I’m going to tell you why. I promised at the beginning I’d share my blunders with you, so here’s a good one.

My novel is set in a real small town in the UK. It’s the one I grew up in, though these days I live in London. When researching agents I discovered that one agency is based in a village just outside this small town. The only trouble is that they specify on their website that they don’t normally handle sci-fi or fantasy. While my novel (and general taste) isn’t out-and-out high fantasy, it’s definitely closer to fantasy than any other genre. ‘Urban fantasy’ is how I’m describing it genre-wise in my query letters, though I do make it clear it’s set predominantly in the real world. So I weighed up the pros and cons, and decided it was worth a go. I submitted my novel to this particular agency, mentioning in the first couple of sentences that it was set in this particular small town and may therefore be of specific interest. But it seems not.

While I don’t think it was a mistake to send it to them per se, I do think it’s worth me remembering that primarily agents need to engage with the characters and story. The rest is glorified set dressing, in effect (though of course I’d argue it’s absolutely integral). I’m not a fan of gritty crime drama and while a gritty crime drama set in my home town would pique my interest slightly more, it’s unlikely it would make me suddenly fall in love with the rest of the trappings of the genre. And I want/need an agent who’ll fall in love with my story just as much as I love it. That’s what my novel deserves and I’d do well to remember not to undersell it on a gimmick.



Urges. How to control them and when not to.

Or, asking the impossible.


Tappity tappity tappity

Tappity tappity tappity

This is the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. It’s been going on six weeks since I sent my first few query letters out, and so far I’ve had three rejections with two replies still pending. It’s getting close to time to send out the next batch and I’ve discovered a new step in the process. The urge to fiddle.

It’s impossible to know the definitive reason the three agents so far haven’t wanted to read more – it could be anything from the mood they were in when they read my submission, the fact that they just signed someone with the same basic premise, something specific in the writing, something that didn’t gel in the query letter…. The list goes on. Or, as their letters stated, it could simply be the fact that this is a subjective game. It’s dependent on taste, and for everyone that thinks my book is a masterpiece (that would be, um, me) there are bound to be people who disagree or don’t engage with the subject, setting or characters.

So do I fiddle with it (the novel, I mean. Filth.)? Well without some more comprehensive feedback, I don’t think there’s any point in fiddling with the novel itself. But that’s only part of the package. There’s also the query letter and the full synopsis which give a flavour of the book and the full plot respectively. And if something is amiss in those or could be more gripping then that could potentially be a turn off for the agents.

Or… they could be fine and just waiting to get in front of someone who really engages with them. For this next batch I’m going to keep everything the same (unless any of the agents have particular stipulations of course) and then ponder anew in about eight weeks. And I shall take heart from hearing that the author of The Help, Kathryn Stockett, faced 61 rejections and three years from first submitting to getting picked up. For her it was apparently rejection number fourteen that almost broke her. I’ll let you know which number it is for me.

That’s all well and good, but what to do in the interim? I can’t just twiddle my thumbs and hope for the best, that’s no way to get anywhere. I’ve dusted off the novel (or the three-quarters-of-a-novel) I wrote the first draft of for last year’s NaNoWriMo – The Lord of the Dance – and have got well and truly stuck into the redrafting. One of the major elements that need some TLC are the characters. Perhaps because of the time constraints that NaNoWriMo brings, the characters all start fairly strong then become a bit wishy washy. I’ve decided to borrow a trick from my other half (also a writer) and try casting the novel. Alongside doing a load of other character development bits and bobs, it’ll help me get back on track if I feel them drifting again. That and, if you cast them with actors who make interesting or bold character choices then maybe some surprises will pop up. So who is in the cast? My main five are:

Shia Labeouf (that breakdown has made him so much more interesting!), Cillian Murphy, Mia Wasikowska, Ellen Paige and Adrien Brody

I’ve cast this lot based on the character elements that I’d already come up with and written 80,000 words about, but it’s made me ponder what would happen if you approached it the other way around, if you used actors as your first stepping stone into characters’ heads. And more importantly, if you could pick any five actors to sling together in a cast, who would it be?

Rejection and Joy

Or, The Search For Silver Linings

Welcome to the latest in my series following my attempt to get published for the first time. I come with Big News. Not the Big News that causes champagne corks to pop, sadly, but Big News nonetheless: I have received my first rejection.

When I started this series I said that I would share any triumphs or failures, and do you know what? I’m undecided as to which this is. Obviously it’s not the kind of triumph I’m after, but it does give me a sense that I am ‘in the club’. From my research for preparing to approach agents, I reinforced the knowledge that there aren’t many published authors who haven’t faced between one and a gazillion rejections (see J K Rowling for details), so in a way, if you squint really hard, I’m actually closer to being published.

For those trying the same thing as me, and for those with no intention of ever writing anything, I thought you might find it interesting to see what rejection looks like, so, with the agent’s name removed, here we are:

‘Dear Jonathan,

Thank you for submitting your work entitled A Calling-On Song to this agency.  Unfortunately, I’m afraid I didn’t respond warmly enough to the story to be able to fully engage with it. As I’m sure you know, the publishing business is fiercely competitive and in order to represent a writer effectively, we do need to be one hundred percent convinced by their work.

I wish you best of luck in finding representation.

Best wishes,

So, what to take from this? I’m sure there’s a bit of cut-and-pasting in the reply, but that’s fair enough given the volume of submissions they look at. The fact that they’ve highlighted the story as what didn’t grab them is (again, squint a bit) a sort of positive. Not every story will appeal to everyone and agents have to be an author’s number one fan to give them the support needed. That said, my novel is the definitive British novel of this generation, or so I’ve almost convinced myself. But I’ll let you all be the judge of that when it’s published!

From my days plugging away as an actor, I’ve received many different forms of rejection, both polite and preposterous, and this definitely sits near the top of the list. It further confirms that publishing is a far more pleasant industry than performance and do you know what? A literary agent has at least glanced at my novel. That makes me happy, regardless of the outcome.

Have any of you lot had rejections from literary agents (or anyone else for that matter)? How do you think this compares to your experience? And how did you stop obsessing over analysing every word of the reply?!