Tuesday 26 March 2013

The Long and Beautiful Story of How I Got my Agent

This week is the Bologna book fair, the biggest event in the children’s publishing calendar. It’s where agents and publishers meet to exchange ideas, pitch and acquire books and discover the next big thing in children’s writing.

And this year something I wrote is part of it. My agent, Gemma Cooper, is at this very moment pitching my novel to UK and US publishers (if you’re interested in how she does it, here’s her blog post explaining the whole exhausting process), and by next week Hazel, Daisy and their tale of daring detection will be sent out on submission to every publisher who has expressed interest in them.

I still find this whole experience beyond astonishing. Three months ago, if someone asked me about my writing I would say, ‘I, er, wrote a book. I’m not sure it’s much good. It’s about these girls who solve a murder,’ and now when someone asks me the same question I can say, ‘Yes, I wrote a book. My agent has taken it to Bologna book fair. I think. Unless this is all actually a dream. It feels like a dream, except that no one has stabbed each other or turned into a dolphin yet.’

A long time ago, back when the book was 28,000 words longer and nothing in it made any sense, I told you all that I was going to write a post about how the whole Gemma-becoming-my-agent thing happened. After that, life sort of intervened, but here I am, two rewrites later, about to explain exactly that.

Are you ready? Are you remembering that this is my entirely subjective account of my entirely subjective experience, and I don't really have any idea what I'm talking about?


Then I’ll begin.

1) I wrote a book. This could actually be a blog post in and of itself. This turned out to be very difficult but also unexpectedly simple, in that you start to write the book, you continue to write the book and then you carry on writing the book until the book is finished. If you like things to happen quickly, don’t write books.

2) I polished my manuscript. I used youwriteon.com for this and found it incredibly helpful. Basically, you need to find yourself some disinterested people who are willing to be incredibly mean about what you have written, in a constructive way, until you have made it a lot better. When this has happened (hint: this also takes a lot of time), you are ready to pitch your manuscript to agents.

3) I pitched my manuscript to agents. For this, you need a polished manuscript (see points 1 and 2) and a good query letter. For how to write a good query letter, see Query Shark’s website, and for the query letter I ended up writing to Gemma, see my post about it here.

Once you have your query letter, you need to do some serious, major, Pinkerton-level research. By all means, use The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook as a jumping-off point. But, as I learnt to my cost, there is absolutely no point pitching to an agent just because they like crime and so do you. If you have written (just for example) a historical mystery with an Agatha Christie vibe for young teenagers, you don’t just want an agent who likes crime. You don’t just want an agent who likes YA. You want an agent who is looking for a historical mystery with an Agatha Christie vibe for young teenagers. THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT.

Every writer who I have spoken to has a different and totally random story about how they got their agent. Hanna Jameson met hers at a gig afterparty, for example. But the one thing that all these stories have in common is this: the writer found an agent who wanted to buy the exact thing that they were selling.

4) Some magic happened. Like I said, every writer’s story is different. So many people find their agents as a result of a real-world meeting or a good old fashioned email exchange, but I’d advise all aspiring authors to get themselves on Twitter and follow every creative person they come across. First, because they are mostly great people who it’s a pleasure to be in contact with, and second, because you never know what might happen if you’re in the right e-place at the right time.

 This is what happened to me.

 At the end of October last year I got into a Twitter conversation with the estimable Louie Stowell. I mentioned that I was in the process of querying my manuscript. “Well,” said Louie (I’m paraphrasing), “If you’re looking for representation you should follow Liz de Jager. She knows a lot of agents.” So I followed Liz. And (I am not kidding) that evening Liz tweeted about an agent called Gemma Cooper who had just moved to the Bent Agency and who was actively looking for new clients. I clicked on the link to Gemma’s site, read her wishlist and pretty much fainted dead away in my wheelie chair because she was looking for my book.

 I sent my query letter, along with the exact number of manuscript pages requested on the Bent Agency’s website (This is crucial. When you query, DO WHAT THE AGENCY TELLS YOU TO DO. They are the puppet master. You are the puppet. Dance for them) to Gemma’s email address .

Less than forty eight hours later I had an email back from Gemma requesting the full manuscript.

5) I wish I could say that the rest was history. Alas! If you were expecting this post to end here, you are still young in the ways of the publishing business.

What happened next was that I sent off my manuscript, weeping just a little out of sheer panic, and then… I waited.

And I waited.

I waited and I waited and I waited.

And then I waited some more.

Now, this is not because Gemma was being mean to me. It is because all good agents are extremely busy. Most of their working week is (of course) taken up with their existing clients – working on their manuscripts, going to endless meetings with publishers to drum up interest, organising events and so on for ever. Most of the rest of their waking lives is spent reading queries. No, not full manuscripts. Queries. Agents’ inboxes are flooded with hundreds of first-chapter queries each week, and they will read – or at least skim over – each one. Out of every hundred manuscripts, they maybe request to see fulls of three, but what with client demands and that never-ending query deluge, it will sometimes take them a while to get round to reading those fulls.

How long is a while? I submitted my full in November. By the beginning of January I still hadn’t heard back, apart from a kind and apologetic holding email telling me that my manuscript was still under consideration. And then one morning I woke up to this tweet.
It was the first time in my life I have asked 'am I awake?' and been genuinely unsure of the answer. She was reading my manuscript and she liked it. A few hours later I got an email from Gemma telling me that she was half-way through the book, and that she’d be able to give me an answer in three days. For those three days I was not a delight to live with.

And then, on day three, I was sitting at my computer when I saw this tweet.
You know the scene in Julie and Julia, when Meryl Streep gets the acceptance letter from Knopf that she has waited years for, and she just takes hold of it and presses it reverently to her bosom while she stares up at the sky with a rapt look on her face? I wish that's what I looked like when Gemma's email pinged into my inbox. Sadly, I am not Meryl Streep, so I received my good news hunched up in front of my computer screen, sobbing brokenly into an entire box of tissues.

6) You think that this story is over now? THINK AGAIN. Contrary to popular belief, Gemma did not offer me representation in that first email. She was friendly and complimentary about the book, but she did not commit herself beyond a request that we meet over coffee to talk about what I had written.

This meeting (it could be a phone or Skype conversation if the agent is not in the same place you are) is standard, and absolutely crucial to your chances of getting represented. It is also something that not many people discuss when they explain the process of becoming agented. It happens because agents need to find out whether they can work with the author, and more importantly if they want to, and because writers need to find out the same things. Don't worry, though. It’s basically like the nicest interview you’ll ever go to.

I turned up, vibrating with excitement but trying to pretend I was totally cool with it all, and it all went astonishingly well. Again, Gemma was absolutely lovely about the book – I’ve written before about how impressed I was with how much she just got it – but she also had a list of large changes that she thought should be made in its next draft. It was only after I’d gotten really enthusiastic about her ideas, and I’d suggested some new things that she was excited about, that she made her formal offer of representation.

She gave me as long as I wanted to think about it, and actually told me that she didn’t want an answer until the next week (I think this was to prevent me just screaming YES I WILL BE REPRESENTED BY YOU! at her in the middle of St Pancras Station). Then I went home and cried a little bit. There is a lot of crying in this story.

7) I said yes! Of course I did. I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t. But before I did (this is another extremely important thing) I made sure I’d read through the contract thoroughly, googled Gemma and the Bent Agency and chatted to two of Gemma’s existing clients to hear about their experiences with her.

Agent contracts (believe me) are pretty binding, so you want to make sure that you’re happy with the professionalism and business sense not only of the agent themselves but their agency too. It’s so exciting to suddenly be in a position where an agent is asking you for something that it’s easy to get carried away. I know I did. Gemma was honest enough to remind me to calm down and think sensibly, but I suspect that some other agents won’t be. Be savvy, writers! Take your time. Future-you will thank you for it.

8) I signed with my new agent! Believe me, I have never seen a more beautiful contract. And then Gemma and I got to work.

So that's my story! Yours probably is, or will be, nothing like this at all. Publishing is a mad and tricksy business that does not operate logically. This is why it's so awesome. Good luck to those of you who are trying to catch an agent of your very own - but please remember that, as I said before, I really know nothing. Do not be tempted to take my word as law. I'm just some random person who is quite good at making words look like they mean things.

And now I shall go back to refreshing Twitter for news about Bologna.

Sunday 10 March 2013

February Links Round-Up

Hello my freaky darlings.

Yes, I know, it's the middle of March. I have been neglecting this blog. I plead manuscript revisions and also a new job. I am currently trying to read through my new employer's entire frontlist, a terrible and arduous task that is causing me much pain.

I'm kidding. It's wonderful.

Anyway, here is the (short) list of the things I wrote in February.

For The Bookbag, I reviewed:

- The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor. An excellent, very creepy and very different take on the American Revolution. If you like Taylor, you'll love this.

For Litro, I reviewed:

- Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer. Really truly awesome crime novel. One of the best things I've read all year.

- Fanny and Stella by Neil MacKenna. I've seen a lot of reviewers who've loved this, but it left me lukewarm and a bit annoyed. A wonderful true story that could be told a lot better.

So, there you have it! That was the month that was. Onwards!

Saturday 2 March 2013

February Reading

The manuscript revision, as Poirot would say, marches. It marches fairly well. And when it does not march so well, I am getting a wonderful opportunity to learn the art of absolute Zen-like acceptance and calm in the face of metaphorical lions and tigers and bears.

Nothing matters! It's all fine! In fact, it's GREAT. An entire subplot has to be cut? Great! The last third of the book does not make sense any more? Great! The title may have to be changed? GREAT! I cry. WONDERFUL! YES! BRILLIANT!

(No, really, it is all wonderful, and it will all be fine.)

Anyway, I have another very good piece of news to share with you all. Ladies and gentlemen of the internet, I finally have a job! As of last week, I work in the magical emporium of words that is Orion Books. I now spend all day working on other people's books and then come home and write my own. Basically, my inner twelve-year-old thinks I am THE BIGGEST STAR IN THE UNIVERSE.

I should, however, probably make some disclaimers before I carry on: despite what happens in my professional life, this is still very much my personal blog. Nothing in it has anything to do with the official opinion of Orion and the Hachette Group at large. Likewise, anything I may previously have said about an Orion or Hachette title is my own view of it, and springs from my crabbed soul alone.

Luckily the titles I'm reviewing today are nothing to do with Orion at all. So, with a clear conscience, I will now have at my February book list.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Alas. Rarely have I ever read a book that I appreciated so much in the abstract but which bored me so heavily in practice. The writing in Moon Tiger is hauntingly lovely, its premise clever (the whole stretch of history viewed as it relates relation to the life of one woman, the tempestuous Claudia) and that premise well-executed. And yet, it had all the emotional effect on me of a lukewarm glass of milk.

Have I gotten too used to books with punchy, linear plots? Probably. I kept longing for stuff to blow up already - and then realising that the whole book was about the horrors of World War II and feeling crass.

I don't know what happened. There's a dreamy underwater aspect to this book, and maybe I wasn't in the mood for dreaminess. Objectively, I have to say that this was a beautiful book. Subjectively, it took me two weeks to get through its 200 pages and I resent it utterly as a result.

3 stars.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

In terms of actual technical accomplishment, this is far inferior to Moon Tiger. Subjectively, though? I enjoyed it a whole lot more.

Also (oddly enough) about the horrors of World War II, Code Name Verity is written as the account of a British spy who has been captured by the Nazis during her very first mission to occupied France. Verity (not her real name) has been ordered to write down everything she knows about British intelligence in exchange for her comfort in prison, but what she actually writes is a sort of third-person love-letter to Maddie, the girl who piloted her into France.

This is being marketed as YA, mainly because the two main characters are quite young. I'm not sure it should be. I get the feeling that someone said to Elizabeth Wein, "This is great, but because this is now for teens you need to make it LIGHTER! We need to LAUGH!" This is the only explanation I can find for the frankly weird tone of parts of the novel. The bits where Verity is recounting the story of her friendship with Maddie is both sweet and perfectly convincing, but around those we get passages about Verity's treatment in prison which can best be described as 'I've been captured by the Gestapo! LOL!'

This is horribly offputting, not to mention extremely unlikely, and although in later parts its inclusion does begin to make more sense, Verity would have been a markedly better book without it. I think Wien became a bit of a victim of her own admittedly good plot idea (I don't want to give anything away, but if you've read it you'll know what I mean). I see why Verity's story is the shape it is, but all the same the editor in me sat up and said, I want to cut ALL OF THIS PART.

Basically, this was an intensely mixed bag of a text. I loved parts of it, I disliked other parts. But overall I enjoyed myself, and that counts for something.

4 stars.

Armadale by Wilkie Collins

I have nothing to say about this book other than YES. I've registered my love for Wilkie Collins on this blog before. For me he's Dickens sans draggy social conscience and plus a lot of extra murder and bigamy and pirates. Basically, he's Dickens BUT BETTER.

This highly ridiculous, hugely fun novel is entirely based on the premise that everyone in it is called Allan Armadale. OK, I'm slightly exaggerating, but not much. There were two men called Allan Armadale who hated each other and swore an eternal feud, and then they both had sons, and they both got called Allan Armadale, and now they're meant to carry on the eternal feud - EXCEPT - they meet unexpectedly and become Best Friends. Are Allan and Allan fated to do ill to each other? Can their loyalty to Allans peres overcome their loyalty to each other? And what will happen when they both fall in love with the same (evil) lady?

Cue idiocy and fabulously manufactured mayhem. In a Wilkie Collins novel, six impossible things happen before breakfast in every single chapter, but he's so good at creating plot twists that you don't even notice how brain-achingly stupid all of them really are. Yes, all his heroic characters are sappy fools. Yes, his villainous characters are so evil that they might as well come with fangs and a pointy tail attached. But his stories are AWESOME.

As a side-note, Armadale gave me additional joy when I realised that wicked quack make-up artist Mrs Oldershaw is a fantastic caricature of real-life quack make-up artist Madame Rachel, subject of a biography I read last year. I love it when books connect. Anyway, Armadale was daft but great, a rollicking souped-up sensational yarn where everyone runs about crying and screaming and having prophetic visions. My favourite.

4 stars.

Size 12 Is Not Fat by Meg Cabot

I cherish a deep and abiding love for the romance novels of Meg Cabot. Their protagonists are delightfully sweet, if very dim (I can't tell if Cabot does this ironically or not. I have the bad feeling that she does not, but I am not going to pry into it in case I confirm my suspicions), and they all fall in love with lawyer prince vineyard owners and live happily ever after. I cannot even tell you how many times I have read the Queen of Babble trilogy (hint: many). They are so soothing and lovely, like mental ice-cream, and sometimes we all just need some mental ice-cream in our reading. So me going on holiday last week was the perfect excuse to buy one of the Meg Cabots I hadn't already read, the first in her series of gentle-murder-mysteries-that-are-secretly-romance-novels.

Heather Wells is a washed-up teenybop sensation (with weight issues) who's been forced to take a job as deputy building manager for a New York University hall of residence. When a girl falls to her death down one of the elevator shafts, Heather is the only one who suspects that it might not actually be an accident. Can she find the murderer?

Can she heck. Heather does eventually solve the murder (it's pretty easy), but throughout the book she is waaay more interested in getting into the pants of her preternaturally attractive and super-rich (of course) private detective roommate Cooper. Sure, this is a romance-thinly-disguised-as-a-murder-mystery, but REALLY I think that someone investigating a murder would not spend 95% of her waking life wondering whether or not a boy liiiiikes her. Jeeze, Heather. He likes you. Now go work out who is pushing girls down lift shafts.

I think that maybe pairing a romance with a murder mystery is a less good idea than it seemed a first. I like Meg Cabot romance novels. I like murder mysteries. And yet I sensed many flaws in this particular marriage of the two genres.

2.5 stars.

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

I reviewed Belinda Bauer's latest crime novel, Rubbernecker, for Litro last week and LOVED it. If I had been handing out stars, it would have been a 4.5 grading to 5. So obviously I had to buy her first book to make sure she was that good all the way through.

And she is. Blacklands is the story of 11-year-old Stephen Lamb, whose uncle Billy was the victim of a high-profile white-van paedophile called Arnold Avery. Billy never came home, and never grew up, and his loss (his body has never been recovered, although Avery has admitted to his abduction) has devastated the lives of Stephen's mum and grandma. Neither of them have time for Stephen, and so Stephen hits on a plan to bring the family back together - he's going to go out on Exmoor and find Uncle Billy's body. When his search does not seem to be coming up with the hoped-for results, he tries a new tactic: contacting Avery in prison to ask where Billy can be found. But it turns out that Avery is more interested in Stephen himself...

This is an incredibly terrifying and ballsy premise, and it gets even more shocking from there. About a third of the book is written from Avery's perspective, a man who's Humbert Humbert crossed with one of Terry Pratchett's grinning psychopaths. Bauer writes a chillingly logical justification of his actions that feels disgustingly likely. He's a realistically evil character, just as Stephen (almost more impressively) is an absolutely realistic 11-year-old boy. It's rare to read a book not for children that bothers with getting its child characters right, but Bauer's really done it here. I loved Stephen and I was completely gripped and freaked out by his story. I think Belinda Bauer's my new crime writing hero.

4.5 stars.

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Last week, while I was reading this, I tried to explain it to my boyfriend by saying, "I'm reading a book about a serial killer."

"You're always reading a book about a serial killer," he replied, at which point I realised that he was completely right and felt terrible about it. The only vague justification of my reading habits I can give is that they're not all this gruesomely harrowing. I actually, er, prefer the funny ones. Or is that a worse admission?

Anyway, Kevin is all about a truly horrible high-school shooting. It's written from the perspective of the mother of the perpetrator, as she tries to come to terms with what her son has done and her own culpability for his actions. A lot of it is startlingly, unpleasantly realistic, and Shriver has done an excellent (maybe too excellent) job of bringing Eva's fear and distress and guilt to life. Likewise, Eva's marriage to the dopey but well-meaning Franklin is similarly well imagined - Shriver is a really good and very meticulous writer.

What I honestly just could not buy, though, was Kevin himself. We're meant to understand Eva as a flawed narrator, but even so I just could not believe for a second that even a version of her slit-eyed snakelike Son of Satan could ever possibly exist. In her mind, he literally is Rosemary's baby but without the little horns and cloven hooves. The rest of Shriver's world is so banal, so full of things that are just OK (and only if you squint) that Kevin the Evil Genius doesn't seem to fit into it.

I read about - and write about - murder because I don't understand why anyone could commit atrocities, and I think Shriver's asking the same questions here. I don't really agree with her answers, and I think that's because what interests (and terrifies me) is the idea of sliding scale between not-killer and killer, the connections between a good, moral, kind person and someone who eats babies. Yes, Shriver does try to show similarities between Eva and her son, but Kevin's so soaked through with cartoon villain evil that it doesn't really work.

That's not to say I wasn't heavily upset by Kevin. It's a harrowing read, and one that I don't want to go through again. If you want to attempt it yourself, make sure you have someone on hand to give you a hug at the end of each chapter.

3.5 stars.