Claire’s week in books: Big News!

I don’t have much book news at the moment, if by book news you are expecting the usual reports on books bought, read, looked forward to. On the other hand, I do have my biggest book news ever, which also happens to be life news.

I have an agent!

Agents are, by and large, the people who sell books to editors at publishing houses. They are the gatekeepers, the spam filters. To take your first steps on the publishing ladder, you basically “apply” to an agent by sending them what is known as a query letter – a pithy summary of your novel, a paragraph about yourself, a compelling reason why they are the best agent for your work. Some of them want the dreaded synopsis. (I say dreaded, because think about your favourite film; now think about how much fun it is to have someone else recount the events in the film for you rather than watching it yourself. See?) Most of them want sample pages from the book, but the number can vary from 5 to 50, and, in one case that I came across, the whole manuscript. That’s extremely rare, though. Usually, you have to be “asked for a full”. This happens, for context, almost never. My first novel, Inevitable, which was by no means terrible, got a grand total of zero full requests.

Unscripted is better, though, or at least more publishable, and easier to make into the aforementioned pithy paragraph – or maybe I am just better at it now. I started querying it in April, and on 16th June, after what may or may not have been my 42nd query, I got my first full request. It was a proud moment. It was followed by three more.

After a few weeks, the first one came back with a no – which was a little disappointing, because there wasn’t even a note as to why. This is par for the course with queries – many agents just tell you on their website that if you haven’t heard from them by x date, you may assume thanks but no thanks. Many others send a form rejection – some of which don’t even bother with your name. Really? I wanted to write back. You couldn’t spring for the software that would automatically insert our names? This is all a bit soul destroying, considering the effort that goes into each query letter, and considering too that a little piece of your heart goes out with each of these query letters. It does mean, though, that any hint of a personalization on the rejection note – “this is great writing and an interesting premise; maybe try my colleague?” – is supremely encouraging. Anyway, I had assumed that when people rejected your full manuscript they at least gave you a line or two as to why. Turns out, no they don’t.

It wasn’t as depressing as it could have been, though, because by the time they rejected me I had had another full request. And this one was promising – I had been referred to this agent by a friend of hers, whom I had met on a writing course and who had liked my work enough to consider it worthy of her attention. I sent this agent a letter, mentioning the name, and got an instant and friendly reply, then the hoped-for full request.

I didn’t count my chickens, though. I noticed that July seemed to be a good month for getting replies from agents, so I doubled, quadrupled, my efforts. My aim was to get to 100 agents; after that I would re-assess. I think that I secretly thought that the quicker I got to 100 with no success the quicker I could self-publish and get this book off my to-do list. Self-publishing was never the dream; traditional publishing has always been what I have aimed for. But while I thought Unscripted was good, or at least not bad, no-one on MFA programs ever says to you, “Listen, this is of publishable quality.” It’s actually very hard to tell from people’s comments at a workshop whether a piece is brilliant or utter trifle, because no matter the quality of the piece, it has to be both praised and criticised. Plus, I’ve been through this process before, with a novel I really believed in. So I was hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst. I made it to 70 queries and then one morning (3rd August to be exact) I woke up and I had an email.

This agent had “absolutely adored” Unscripted. Did I have time to speak that day? Um, yes. I thought I could probably make the time. (!!) We played phone tag for a few hours. I sat by my phone until 3 pm, unable to shower or go out to buy milk for coffee just in case that was the moment at which she rang, and certainly unable to concentrate of anything remotely productive. We spoke for two hours. I came off the phone thinking that maybe she loved my novel more than I did. It was amazing. And surreal after all these weeks, months, of not even a bite from other agents, and all these years of having other people opine in workshops as to what I should change, to have someone else “get” my novel, not want it to be anything other than it is, and believe it can sell.

And I get it now, the rejections – some of them, yes, despite what agents’ polite auto responses will tell you, are indications of insufficiently polished writing or ill thought-out plot. But many of them are simply this: the agent didn’t fall in love. And that’s okay. We don’t all fall in love with every book. (Much as I wish everyone would share my impeccable taste.) You don’t want an agent who likes your book and thinks it can sell. You want an agent who loves your book and believes in it more than you do and will go out to bat for it. Who will say to editors, and mean it, you don’t want to be the one to turn this novel down.

I’d been advised to email the other agents who had a full – and, to be safe, basically all the other agents who hadn’t yet explicitly rejected me (and some of whom sprang into action, suddenly wanting to read the book they’d had sitting in their inbox for months). So I had to wait for them to say no before I could officially say yes to Mel, my now agent. I went up to New York to meet her face to face on 17th August. I felt like I was a character in one of my own novels. So surreal. So amazing. So unbelievable that it had finally happened.

The next step – which we’ve just embarked on – was for her to send me suggestions for edits. Both comments scribbled on my manuscript itself at the sentence level, and also broader points, like “we need to know more about x” or “maybe you want to rethink the relationship between these two characters”. The aim at the moment is for me to get these edits to her by the end of September, and then she’ll do another read through, and then I might do a bit more polishing. And then she’ll start pitching publishers. It could all happen comparatively fast. (I could have a deal by October!) It also might not. There might be deals for translations; there might be deals for an audio version; there might not be. But I’m cautiously optimistic.

And, oh my goodness, what having an agent does. It’s so much more than maybe getting a book deal, which is obviously the whole point of everything. It’s validation: someone who knows the industry has declared that you can write, and not only write, but write stuff that others might pay money to read. It’s your friends congratulating you and hugging you and celebrating with you even if they don’t quite know what an agent is or does or why they’re important. It’s being able to hold your metaphorical head high on Twitter when you engage authors in conversation. It’s being able to look straight into someone’s eyes when they ask what you do and say, “I’m a writer”. And that? That is worth every minute of poring over those query letters.

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