The tale of how an aspiring author (almost) managed to hook an agent…

Listen carefully. Once upon a time I nearly managed to hook an agent. Not only that but it was the first agent I sent my manuscript to! Who replied the very next day! Asking to see my entire manuscript! Yes, it sounds like a dream come true…

I hope this tale will give anyone reading some tips on how to achieve the same magical result I experienced after sending out my work. But beware! This is also a cautionary tale. That agent who was so desperate to see my manuscript? In the end she declined it. I’m going to tell why. That way you won’t make the same mistake I did.

But back to the start. I was just as surprised as anyone when I got a response from a very successful and prominent agent, regarded as one of the best, asking to see my whole novel. She even went as far as to say she ‘really liked these pages,’ and wanted to know if I’d sent it out to other agents. It’s the kind of email aspiring authors dream of and I’ll tell how I think it managed to come about.

Firstly I looked up every agent I could find, the way most people do, using ‘The Writers and Artists Yearbook’. It’s one of those books everyone in the publishing industry- or everyone who wants to get into the industry- should just have. But the book only serves as a beginning. The internet is where the real information on planet agentslies, as I’m sure everyone knows.

Of course, I read the submission guidelines and made sure each query letter was tailored to each agent, like anyone else would. But then I decided to do more. Every agent I planned to send my work to I typed their name into google and added the word ‘interview.’ Sometimes this gave me lots of results some times it didn’t. But most of the time you would be quite surprised to discover just how many interviews are lurking about online regarding certain agents. And this is the strange part, when I began researching agents this way I discovered even more agents I didn’t even know existed. The next part of my plan was to stalk their twitter. Yes, I mean stalk. You’d be surprised by how much you can learn about a person from reading their tweets. The more you know about an agent the better. You can really begin to get a good idea if your work is the kind of thing they’d be interested in. Afterwards I went back to google and typed in the agents name and then typed ‘wish list.’ This is where I got some of the best results because the answers that popped up matched exactly what I had written in my novel. An agent declared a ‘children’s fantasy novel for middle grade set in our own world’ is what they want? Great! I knew exactly where to send my work.

There were even more things I did before sending off my beloved story. Some agents have blogs. Sometimes on these blogs they will go into great detail about their likes and dislikes when receiving a submission. You would have to be an idiot not to make use of that kind of information! Some agents even pop up on youtube where they go into even more detail about what they want from a submission. My advice would be to literally wring the internet dry on each agent, till you have read every possible thing you can. I even found information on what agents look for in the opening paragraph to a manuscript. Then I changed the opening of my manuscript accordingly. Why not? And here’s the thing, once I did make those slight changes the opening was all the better for it. Eventually, between tweaking my manuscript and selecting an agent who was looking for the type of novel I’d written to begin with, I found the perfect agent. What she was looking for was exactly what I had written. The funny part is she wasn’t even on my original list for some reason, but I’d managed to discover her along the way. From reading her twitter, interviews, wish lists and looking up every single one of her existing clients and even reading a book by one of them, I knew she would be the perfect agent to send my novel to.

So I did. I wrote the email. I attached the first three chapters. I clicked ‘send.’ Scary isn’t it?

As scary as it was I was totally elated the next day when I got a response. She wanted to read the entire novel! I’d been imagining a long three month wait only to receive a rejection so when I got this eager and super-speedy response I was quite literally over the moon. I danced around with the dog in my flat. I went into work and caused everyone to ask ‘what’s going on with you? Why are you so happy?’ Let me assure you, when an agent asks to see your full manuscript it’s as good as you imagine it to be, times about a trillion. And that putting it subtly.

Then a few days later the dream ended. She wasn’t interested in taking it further. Why? One simple answer.

THE MANUSCRIPT WASN’T READY!

After all the effort I had gone to in researching agents I had forgotten- no, neglected- to go over my manuscript those final and essential last few times. The first 3 chapters might have been good enough but I hadn’t shown the same care and attention to the rest of the novel. The story, according to the agent, tended to be long winded at times and didn’t drive through in the way she wanted it to. While she assured me I could write and was onto something she wasn’t interested in pursuing the novel any further. Crash! Bang! Burn! Yep, I’d come hurtling back down to earth with a thundering thud. Ouch. I felt like Frodo might have if he finally got to Mount Doom, was about the throw the ring into the fiery abyss… only to have a orc jump out, grab the ring and hurry back to Sauron, leaving Frodo-me standing uselessly on the precipice, waving my fist at him as he disappeared with the ring and my literary dreams.

And here’s the lesson of the tale. Don’t send your work out till it’s ready. And if you think it’s ready, guess what, it’s not. Take a break for a month. Come back to it and edit. Take another break. Come back and edit again. I can see now how right the agent was about my work. I went through and deleted over 5000 words. Some of them were sentences but most of them were merely words clogging up sentences. Imagine if your manuscript managed to get 5000 words lighter? No scenes or story lines need to be cut out, just the useless words that don’t even need to be there in the first place.

So there you have it. My tips on how I managed to intrigue the very first agent I sent my work to… and my warning on how not to mess it up.

How do they do it? Great writers and great characters

Everyone wants to write and sell the next Harry Potter. Imagine! World wide fame and praise for your international best selling novel! Did J.K Rowling dream of such dizzying ambitions when she was writing Harry Potter? Probably not. What she DID do however was create a cast of colourful characters that people came to love. Her readers wanted to find out what happened to Harry, Ron and Hermione. From big and cuddly Hagrid to slithery and sneaky Draco Malfoy, every character was unique and yet believable. You might have a riveting plot in your novel but if the characters are not engaging then no one will care what happens to them.

So the question is: how do you deftly create characters that seem real without giving the reader a long winded info-dump. Gone are the times of classics when writers could go on for paragraphs and paragraphs about their central characters, giving you a long description of their likes, hates and history. Literature is more cut throat now- especially for children’s novels. You can’t lose a reader’s attention. Any character description will have to be a swift but detailed sprinkling of information about your beloved protagonist.

How to do it? I’ll give you a few examples.

Let’s start with the classic literature I just told you had the liberty of going on at length about its characters. A true statement, but even so, the literary legends of yesteryear still could manage to quickly give us a few accurate hints about the stars of their novels. Take this example from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.

…there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to for fear of the unseen power in the next room; a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she awakened of herself ‘as sure as clockwork,’ and left the household in very little peace afterwards.

In this sentence we discover a lot about the two characters mentioned. There is a little girl, quite possible a good and obedient little girl because, despite her longing to get out of bed, she remains silent and still, partly due to her fear of the sleeping housekeeper next door. The housekeeper in question is described as a ‘power’ of the household who, if awakened, will leave no one in peace. This almost puts the reader in mind of some kind of sleeping dragon and indeed later on Betty is described by another character as a ‘dragon.’ But Betty is harmless really, just a bustling old housekeeper, and despite her fearful introduction in this paragraph there are hints that maybe Betty isn’t as bad as she seems. How do we know this? Because the ‘powerful’ Betty is being seen through the eyes of a meek little girl, who no doubt finds her more frightening than a fully grown adult would. There is also a hint of humour in the way ‘a certain Betty’ is described as some kind of unseen force, indicating that despite her fearful ways, perhaps Betty is thought of fondly. We later discover that Betty is used to having her own way and can sometimes be impertinent to her employers, but they love her anyway, most of all Molly, the little girl who seems to fear her so much in this introduction. All of this is subtly hinted at in just a few sentences. All in all it’s a stellar piece of work from Miss Gaskell.

Example two. We might as well take a look at Harry Potter since it’s characters are so beloved by children and adults alike. However the first characters introduced are the Dursleys, two perfectly horrid people. So how Rowling let us know that Mr and Mrs Dursley, despite being used as a welcome into the Harry Potter world, are in fact two very nasty people who the reader is supposed to hate? Let’s have a look at Rowling infamous opening sentence.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange of mysterious, because they just didn’t didn’t hold with such nonsense.

This sentence is being told in the voice of the Dursleys. It’s a cold voice, using a snappish phrase of ‘thank you very much.’ The Dursleys are proud that they are ‘perfectly normal.’ This tells us a fair bit about them in a single sentence. Firstly it clearly states the Dursleys are proud, not the most endearing of personality traits. It gets worse when we are told what the Dursleys are proud of: the fact they are perfectly normal. The word ‘perfectly’ aptly sums up how the Dursleys think of themselves- perfect. The word ‘normal’ tells us two things. From the Dursleys point of view normal= good. From the readers point of view normal= boring. This is clarified for us when Rowling explains that Mr and Mrs Dursley ‘don’t hold’ with anything ‘strange or mysterious.’ Quite boring, then.

Finally lets take a trip to my beloved Narnia to see how C.S Lewis does it. The opening chapter of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe manages to quickly and subtly tell us two key facts about it’s two central characters Lucy and Edmund.

…he [the professor] was so odd looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him, and Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it.

This sentence basically tells us that Lucy is a shy little girl, the youngest of her siblings, who can be timid and scared of something has harmless as an old professor. Edmund, the second youngest, is a nasty piece of work and pretty disrespectful to his elders. Instead of simply telling the reader this is a very boring fashion the way I’ve just done Lewis uses the meeting of the professor as a way of deftly showing us the characteristics of the two main characters. Lucy= nice, Edmund= nasty. A classic version of show and don’t tell.

Of course introducing the characters is just the first part of the journey. You have to sustain that momentum throughout your whole novel. Every character has to be different yet believable. A good book that I found helped me craft a distinctive cast of characters was 45 master characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. It takes a unusual approach of exploring varying character archetypes through the personalities of Greek gods, using examples of everything from Xena Warrior Princess to Shakespeare’s Othello. Using these archtypes you can create characters full of personality traits, fears and motivates that ring true to whichever type of character you are trying to bring to life.

Also this post on Write Like Rowling gives further examples of how classic literary characters were introduced with effortless ease. A great post on a great blog.

A writer’s tools on his quest

There are several pros and cons to being an ‘aspiring children’s writer.’ A pro, for example, is that the phrase aspiring children’s writer however pretentious, is something interesting to say to people when you first meet them. I myself have enjoyed many times someone has ‘oooohed’ or ‘ahhhhhed’ when I’ve told them of my lofty ambitions to become a published writer. A con is that there is a lot of time spent alone tap, tap, tapping away at your laptop without any validation that what you are doing is worth it.

There is something else which falls firmly into both pro and con categories. You are not alone. This is a con because the competition is fierce. Agents and publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts a week. When you finally work up the courage to send yours masterpiece to whichever agents you can be sure it will be at the bottom of the slush pile, that dreaded place that is as vast and it is feared.

But the pro to there being hundreds- thousands- millions- of other people like yourself is that there is plenty of information and resources on how to write, snag an agent and eventually get published. The internet is testimony to this. Online there are countless hopefuls on all the same journey who can use their experience to enlighten others and perhaps make that long and twisted road to publication that little bit easier. This is part of the reason for this blog. I want to share all the best resources I can find to help others who are on the same endless quest I am to getting published. Along the way I’d like to share my experience of writing and crafting my novels too. Whenever I’ve lacked the fire of inspiration I’ve found reading about how other writers craft their stories has been enough to light a match that eventually rekindles the creative flames inside my brain. And perhaps I might even share some of my work down the road too.

So with that fanfare over with I’d like to share three books which I have found helped me hone my writing skills and become a little better at writing and a little wiser at the art of getting published.

Wonderbook- Jeff Vandermeer

I’m sure every writer has had those days when you just can’t seem to pin yourself down to a chair and do that simple task of writing. Your muse has wondered back to Narnia, leaving you high and dry. This is where Wonderbook comes in. It’s a visually lavish tome on how to write and find inspiration, filled with diagrams, humour, illustrations and interviews with famous authors from Neil Gaimen to George R. R. Martin. With names like those you know you are buying something worth while. Billed as ‘the world’s first fully illustrated creative writing book’ the tag line doesn’t disappoint.

The writer’s guide to crafting stories for children- Nancy Lamb

Easy to read and some pretty basic advice, but not to be scoffed at. Even books aimed at beginners in the writing world can be helpfully. This book gives examples of classic children’s fiction, dissecting how the writing is effective and hooks the reader. Want to know how J.K Rowling hooked readers on the very first page of Harry Potter, or why reader felt compelled to read all three of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials? Read this book.

Writers’ & artists’ yearbook guide to getting published

The publishing industry is like a world of its own. Small, meek little writers are expected to delve into this world and somehow navigate their way through without committing any of the hundreds of school boy errors that can send agents and publishers alike throwing your work into the trash can. This is where this book comes in. It had an answer for almost every question you could possibly have. Covering letters? Approaching agents? The dreaded synopsis? Copyright? Contracts? It’s all here.

And so finishes my first blog. While I might not have anything infinitely useful to say yet, these books really do. A hero doesn’t go on his quest without first arming himself with a magic sword. A writer shouldn’t embark on his quest without these books.